Will your restaurant or bar fail its next health inspection?

Will your restaurant or bar fail its next health inspection?

Restaurants and bars are subject to periodic surprise inspections by the local health inspectors. Here's what business owners need to know about health inspections and what the inspectors are looking for.

Who sets the standards?

Health code standards are developed at the Federal level [by the FDA]. However, it's important to note that the FDA food code standards are not mandatory. They are guidelines for helping local municipalities establish their own comprehensive standards.

From the FDA's website, "The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes the Food Code, a model that assists food control jurisdictions at all levels of government by providing them with a scientifically sound technical and legal basis for regulating the retail and food service segment of the industry"

Local ordinances are required to be followed by law. And health inspectors will enforce those standards with warnings, increased inspection frequency, penalties and even shut-downs for major violations.

What are common health code violations?

The goal of health codes is to reduce the risk of food borne illness and sickness. Since restaurants and bars serve so many guests, significant contamination can result in hundreds of people becoming ill before the source has been identified.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Food Temperature Violations

There are two kinds of food temperature health code violations a restaurant may face.

Food Left At Room Temperature

Food must not be left at room temperature for an extended period of time. A moist, moderately warm environment is a prime breeding ground for bacteria. As a rule of thumb, the maximum lifespan of unrefrigerated food is estimated to be about 6 hours. Exceeding this time period gives bacteria a chance to develop enough to cause food borne illness.

Meats Must Be Cooked Thoroughly

The second type of food temperature violation is when meat is not cooked to the proper internal temperature. For beef, the temperature is lower. For ground meats and poultry a higher internal temperature is required to kill any bacteria that has penetrated the surface of the meat.

Use a reliable probe thermometer and follow this guide from FoodSafety.gov to ensure meats are cooked to a safe internal temperature.

Safe food temperatures

Bare Hand Contact With Food

Another source of common health code violations has to do with hands in contact with food.

Improper Handwashing

Improper handwashing or no handwashing is a common source of food contamination. Cross-contamination happens when workers come into contact with contaminated surfaces, foods with high levels of bacteria such as raw meats and germs that are naturally present on human skin.

This is why proper handwashing is so important to keep food safe to eat. According to FDA guidelines, the following handwashing standards are recommended:

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

When should food employees wash their hands?

Immediately after engaging in activities that contaminate the hands and:

  • When entering a food preparation area
  • single-use gloves for working with food and between glove changes
  • Before engaging in food preparation
  • Before handling clean equipment and serving utensils
  • When changing tasks and switching between handling raw foods and working with RTE (ready to eat) foods
  • After handling soiled dishes, equipment, or utensils
  • After touching bare human body parts, for example, parts other than clean hands and clean, exposed portions of arms
  • After using the toilet
  • After coughing, sneezing, blowing the nose, using tobacco, eating, or drinking
  • After caring for or handling service animals or aquatic animals such as molluscan shellfish or crustacea in display tanks.

Handling Food With Bare Hands

Since hand contact with food is such a major source of food borne illness all bare hand contact with "ready to eat" foods is disallowed under the FDA standards that most municipalities follow.

Additionally, all human skin naturally harbors bacteria including staph germs. And when staff is ill there is a high chance of transmitting those germs to food. For these reasons, the FDA has established strict rules about bare hand contact with food.

This means that, for example, any preparation of vegetables served uncooked, such as for salads, requires workers to use gloves. Employees prepping without gloves would be considered in violation.

Major versus minor violations

Not all health code violations require a restaurant or bar to shut down.

Minor violations will require new policies in place to avoid being in violation next time the inspector returns.

Only major health code violations demand that a restaurant close its doors to resolve the violation. Sometimes, whether it is considered a major or minor violation is at the discretion of the individual inspector.

According to the California Retail Food Code,

"Major violations pose an imminent public health danger and require immediate correction and/or closure of a facility."

The following are critical health code violations for Boulder County and are considered to be major violations by most municipalities:

  • Food Source Violations

    • All foods must be obtained from commercial suppliers that are inspected by the proper health authorities.
    • Foods that are spoiled are considered to be contaminated and are unfit for human consumption.
    • Food that has come into contact directly or indirectly with surfaces that are not clean and sanitized.
    • Improper date marking according to local code and regulations.
  • Personnel Violations

    • Sick workers suffering from an illness that can be transmitted through food must be restricted from handling food and from cleaning equipment and utensils.
    • Cuts or burns on a food worker’s hands require a water-tight barrier.
    • Food workers must wash their hands after touching their hair, face, nose, or other body parts. Fingernails must be kept trimmed and clean.
    • Food workers must not use common towels or aprons to wipe or dry their hands.
    • Employees should not touch ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands.
  • Sanitization Violations

    • All equipment, utensils, and food contact surfaces must be properly washed and sanitized.
    • When equipment and utensils are washed and sanitized by hand, a three-basin sink is required.
    • A dish machine must be a commercial type that has been shown to effectively sanitize.
    • Equipment that needs to be washed and sanitized, but is too large to fit into sinks or dish machines must be washed and sanitized “in place.”
  • Water, Sewage, Plumbing Systems Violations

    • A sufficient supply of hot water is critical for employee hand washing, washing of equipment and utensils, and general cleaning.
    • To prevent the possibility of sewage contacting food or backing up into fixtures, back flow devices must be installed on all faucets, soap and other chemical dispensing systems, and in soft drink carbonator systems.
    • Food establishments must dispose of all wastewater into a sanitary sewer.
  • Pest Control Violations

    • Evidence of insect or rodent infestation.
    • Only approved pesticides, registered for application in food establishments, can be applied
    • Dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, and other types of live animals are not allowed in food establishments. (Guide and service animals are only permitted in customer and office areas.)

It's safe to say that you want to avoid any of these major violations. Aside from the cost of closing the doors of your restaurant and losing business, many communities post the names of restaurants closed for major violations on their websites.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

What happens if you fail a health inspection?

As long as it's not a major violation you'll be allowed by the inspector to keep operating. However, you will be given a warning and a notice to immediately resolve the health code violations identified by the inspector.

And you can expect that another inspection is just around the corner. This is a good thing if you've made the changes required to pass the inspection. Since your latest score is posted on your window the opportunity to quickly increase it should be welcome.

However, if your business is still found to be in violation, and you have failed twice the warnings will turn into a request by the regulators for the restaurant to close its doors until the violations are resolved. Health inspectors will also work to help educate you and your staff about the regulations and standards to meet.


Health code standards are established by the FDA and interpreted and enforced by local municipal and state governments.

Contrary to popular expectations, failing a health inspection is not the end of the world. The goal of surprise health inspections is to keep the public safe and limit the spread of disease in the community.

Health inspectors work with restaurant and bar owners to increase food safety awareness among staff and to fix malfunctioning equipment.

The lasting impact of a failed health inspection is more in the poor perception it can create for guests when they find out about a restaurant's low score or that it has had to be closed due to a major violation.

This guide to understanding health code violations in restaurants and bars is part of the free restaurant management library provided by Rezku. Since 2012 Rezku has been a leader in real-world technology to help food and beverage service owners achieve more of their business goals.

From online reservations and host stand management to point of sale, gift cards, customer loyalty and more, we provide the advanced systems modern restaurants and bars of all types need to reliably get the job done.

Find out more about Rezku on our home page or read more tips on the library homepage.

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