Click on a category to the left to filter the list of FAQs below.

Why are inspections done?

To ensure that minimum health and safety standards are met. Also, being in food establishments on a regular basis gives our staff opportunities to offer suggestions for improving safety and operating efficiency. We look upon each inspection not only as a regulatory tool but also to open dialogue and increase understanding and communication. We feel very strongly that our role in inspecting isn't simply to find problems and demand correction. It is equally important to identify areas in which operators are doing quality work and to provide positive feedback and encouragement.

What do you look for during an inspection?

The short answer is, "All sorts of things." The Food Code is quite extensive and covers everything from food handling practices to the quality of the food itself to the condition of the physical premises. Under the Food Code, we focus on those situations which have a direct bearing upon food safety. Examples of our highest priorities include food temperatures, hand washing and proper use of chemicals including sanitizers. Cleanliness of food contact surfaces such as cutting boards is considered very important. Cleanliness of the floors and walls is of less importance since these surfaces do not come into direct contact with food and are far less likely to contribute to a foodborne illness.

How often are inspections done?

Each food service establishment is given a rating based upon its menu, extent of food handling and overall food safety risk. Based upon the potential risk, each establishment is given from 2 to 3 routine inspections per year. For example, a large restaurant that prepares a variety of foods using complicated recipes might be inspected 3 or even 4 times per year while a convenience store that only serves hot dogs might only see an inspection twice a year. More frequent inspections are done for new establishments, when complaints are received or when an operation has had a history of unsatisfactory inspection reports.

When you are only in the restaurant a few times per year, how can the inspection program be effective?

Inspections are considered a form of sampling. We cannot be in all restaurants at all times so we conduct inspections to take a sort of "snapshot" of the restaurant operation. By examining this snapshot, we are able to draw conclusions about the way the restaurant is operated on a daily basis. For example, if employees are not washing their hands during our inspection, it is reasonable to conclude that adequate hand washing is not routinely done. One of the things that make inspecting a challenge is trying to discern what is a one-time occurrence from what is a routine problem. Because our time in each restaurant is limited, the ultimate responsibility for food safety rests squarely with each restaurant's management team.

The health inspector always seems to show up at the worst time. Why can’t you schedule inspections with the restaurant operators?

When we perform scheduled inspections, people tend to have the place "spiffed" and display their best behavior. Because of this, scheduled inspections don't tend to give us a good feel for the way a restaurant operates on a routine basis. One of our most effective regulatory tools, other than education, is the notion that we could show up at any time. This encourages employees to be doing their best all the time.

What happens if a problem is detected during an inspection?

A violation is documented on the inspection form and it is brought to the attention of the owner or manager. If the violation is minor, the Inspector will give the owner a reasonable time frame for correction, usually no more than 90 days. If the violation is serious and might potentially contribute to a foodborne illness, then an escalated schedule of responses is put into place. The first and best response is for the restaurant management to correct the problem right then and there. If this happens, the Inspector will mark the item as corrected on the inspection report. If more time is needed, the Inspector will give anywhere from 1 to 10 days for correction, depending upon the nature of the violation, and perform a follow-up inspection to determine compliance. If the re-inspection is good, the establishment is placed back on a regular inspection schedule. If the problem was not corrected, a second follow-up inspection is scheduled and a Program Compliance Re-inspection fee is charged to the license holder. All subsequent follow-up inspections are billed the re-inspection fee as well. Restaurant operators who are not able to achieve compliance through the re-inspection process are referred to the Environmental Health Section Manager for further administrative action that may lead to license revocation. Restaurants that experience repeated violations over an extended period of time may also be subject to such action.

Why are there different cooking temperatures? What are they?

Different foods tend to be susceptible to different kinds of bacteria and require different procedures. For example, chicken and other poultry products are at a higher risk of carrying Salmonella and Campylobacter than other foods. Ground meats are associated with higher risk of transmitting E. coli O157:H7 infections. Therefore, these products have higher cooking temperatures. Here is a quick outline of some of the more important cooking temperatures: Chicken, other poultry, and stuffed foods such as manicotti must be cooked to at least 165 °F. Ground meats require an internal cooking temperature of at least 155 °F. Fish, eggs, beef and pork must be cooked to at least 145 °F throughout. In addition to these cooking temperatures, there are a few other important temperatures to remember. All hot items such as gravy or soup on a steam table need to be kept at 135 °F or more (140 °F is recommended). All reheated foods such as refried beans prepared in advance need to be rapidly heated to at least 165 °F. Equipment (such as a steam table) designed for holding food at a certain temperature must never be used to heat the food. The food cannot be heated quickly enough. Another piece of equipment such as a stove or oven must be used to reheat the food which is then placed into a steam table to be kept hot. Finally, freezers should maintain a temperature of 0 °F or less (Fahrenheit) to freeze food solidly allowing for safe long-term storage. All cold foods such as tuna salad and cut melons need to be kept at 41 °F or less.

What if a customer requests over-easy eggs or a rare hamburger?

The Food Code allows most establishments to decide for itself whether to do this. Many restaurant owners and managers have made a decision to simply refuse all such requests and to only serve meats which have been cooked thoroughly (to “medium well” or better). Other food establishments that wish to honor their customers’ requests may do so only if they inform consumers of the significantly increased risk of consuming such food by way of disclosure and reminder.

What’s up with the new Food Code?

The new Food Code emphasizes safe food handling practices and places less concern on the restaurant’s physical facility. Most food establishments are required to employ at least one person who has obtained special certification and this “certified” manager is expected to oversee and be responsible for the safety of food. New establishments (those opened in 2001 or later) must develop and use a written Food Safety Plan. This generally involves the use of established procedures for safe food handling and keeping temperature charts on all critical pieces of equipment. The temperature for cold holding has been reduced from 45 to 41 degrees. Cooling of foods must now be achieved more rapidly during the first 2 hours of a 6 hour period. Direct bare hand contact with ready to eat foods (those not receiving additional cooking) is now prohibited. All repackaged and prepared foods held more than 1 day must be labeled as to contents and the date made. The new Food Code also established the use of the consumer advisory language advising patrons of the risks of consuming under-cooked foods.

Why do you no longer assign a numerical rating or use grade cards?

We found that ratings could be misleading. For example, an establishment operating with good food handling practices in an older building could rack up enough minor facility deductions to score in the 80’s (grade “B”) yet be a very safe bet for dining. Another establishment could have had many foods at bad temperatures and this would have only cost them 5 points for an acceptable sounding score of 95 (in the grade “A” range).

What are the Community Health Services approved methods for cooling foods?

Regardless of the method used, cooling must be done as quickly as possible. The first stage of cooling, from 135 down to 70 degrees or less, must be achieved within the first two hours, and to 41 degrees or less must be completed within a total of 6 hours. There are a variety of cooling methods which, when used properly, can effectively cool foods within the prescribed time. These methods include ice baths and chilling devices which are frozen and then inserted into the food. When simple refrigeration is used for cooling, the food must be transferred to shallow containers (preferably metal) and placed uncovered in the refrigerator with lots of air circulation available around the container. The depth of the food should never be greater than 3 inches. Thick foods such as refried beans or mashed potatoes may need to be placed into containers to a depth of only 1 or 2 inches. Once the food has cooled, you should place a cover and date label on it. Hot foods should never be placed at room temperature “to get the steam off” for more than a few minutes before going into a proper cooling procedure. Cooling should always be done in commercial equipment which has sufficient cooling capacity, never in home-style or beverage refrigerators.

How can I properly thaw frozen foods?

Never on a counter at room temperature and never in warm or standing water. The best way to safely thaw frozen foods is to place them in a refrigerator. This generally requires a little advance planning. When a quicker thawing process is needed, it can safely be done by placing the food item into a clean container and allowing cold water to continually run over it with proper drainage for the overflow. Finally, foods can be thawed as part of a cooking procedure, using a microwave oven or stovetop, if the product goes from frozen to fully-cooked in one continuous process.

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