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13 Things Restaurant Health Inspectors Wish You Knew

Every year, 48 million Americans—about one in six of us—get sick from a foodborne illness, according to CDC estimates. With more than 54 billion meals served at the 844,000 commercial food establishments yearly, your chances of getting food poisoning are a lot higher than anyone wants to think about. Bottom line: What you don't know about food safety could make you sick.

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The FDA’s standards aren’t mandatory

Nationwide standards for food safety are established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whose guidelines state that the “principal goal to be achieved by [restaurant] inspection is to prevent foodborne disease.” Although restaurants in all 50 states are subject to inspection by local, county or state health department personnel, the locals are not necessarily following or guided by FDA standards. The feds standards are not mandatory, and local jurisdictions have broad discretion with regard to how to address restaurant safety.

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The good news: some safety standards are just obvious

Regardless of the specific safety standards, any particular jurisdiction has adopted, there’s simply no wiggle room that should allow black mold to be visible on an ice machine, cleaning products to be stored on the same shelf as food or mouse droppings to be seen in an omelet pan. Yet it happens. Moreover, obvious violations will often point toward a whole host of underlying ones, perhaps not as blatantly disturbing, but disgusting nonetheless. For example, when a man who found a finger on his plate alongside his hamburger at an Indiana restaurant, he had, in fact, unwittingly uncovered another less-obvious violation: since the finger was not gloved, there could be no doubt that someone in the kitchen hadn’t been wearing his gloves while preparing food.

On the other hand, the wearing of gloves in the kitchen should not be seen as a safety panacea either. One of the dirty little secrets, restaurant staffers may not tell you is that they sometimes touch their gloved hands to food after they’ve touched any number of things you’d never want them to have touched: the cash register, for example, or a piece of raw chicken. These are other dirty restaurant secrets the kitchen crew won’t tell you.

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Still, many standards can’t be measured objectively

Even when health inspectors are armed with health code standards, accurately measuring compliance may in a gray area. Food temperature standards are straightforward, for example, while the proximity of raw foods to cooked foods may be more subjective. In addition, any health inspection can only reflect the time when the inspector is present and observing: According to Stacie Duitsman, a Missouri health inspector, the average inspection can vary from 45 minutes to a couple of hours. Who knows what happens after she leaves?

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Inspectors are only human

Humans observe using the five senses. The senses are not always accurate. Moreover, observation is subject to various biases, including preconceived expectations and a tendency to look for things where they are most obvious. Watch out for these secrets your restaurant server isn’t telling you.

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Not all violations are critical, even if they’re gross

When health inspectors visit restaurants, their primary goal is to ensure that critical safeguards are in place to protect food from contamination, both by the people who handle the food as well as from other sources. During a visit, health inspectors look to see that employees regularly wash their hands in a sink that has soap, hot water and paper towels; that utensils and surfaces that come in contact with raw meat are not used to prepare ready-to-eat foods; that foods are kept at the appropriate temperature and that rodents and other pests are not present.

Not all safety standards that inspectors are gauging are critical, however. Non-critical standards deal with low to moderate risk for a health hazards, such as those concerning hairnets or hair restraints, equipment and facilities in need of repair, and the relative cleanliness of sinks where dishes are washed. Violations of non-critical standards may not lead directly to foodborne illness, and they may not lead to a significant reduction of a restaurant’s safety rating, no matter how disgusting we might find them.

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Bad ratings don’t necessarily close restaurants down

A less-than-stellar rating by a health inspector isn’t likely to close a restaurant down. Rather, restaurants are often given an opportunity to remediate. In Philadelphia, for example, the health department cited over 400 restaurants in 2016, but the vast majority were permitted to reopen the very next day with a promise to “do better.” At the same time, an establishment’s ratings may not be posted where you can easily find them. While some states require that ratings be posted in a conspicuous place in the restaurant, itself (New York is one such example), this is not true for all states. These are secrets your fast food worker won’t tell you.

 

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A good rating is only as good as the employees who earned it

Food safety is a function of employees following food safety standards. In many jurisdictions, an excellent rating means that the restaurant won’t be reinspected for another year. In that year, a lot can change, including personnel. You’ll have to use your judgement when you head into the place: Do the staff seem engaged, earnest, and likely to observe the rules?

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Beware of surly servers

Your city could adopt stringent health standards, and your favorite restaurant could enact policies designed to meet those standards. However, since it’s up to the employees to maintain those standards, your server’s demeanor may be revealing. If your server is surly, it could be a sign of problems in the kitchen that ultimately lead to hazardous food safety practices.

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Check out the bathrooms

One reason for employee dissatisfaction may be a failure of the restaurant owner to maintain the facilities properly. Cracked tiles in the bathroom, rust or calcium deposits on the faucets make for an unpleasant bathroom experience not only for you as a customer but also for employees of the restaurant. This is what restaurant owners wish they could tell you.

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More specifically, check the soap

If there’s no soap in the bathroom dispenser, you have to ask yourself, “how are the people handling my food going to wash their hands after using this bathroom?” And if the soap dispenser is empty, how likely is the place to keep up the necessary tools and cleansers to keep the kitchen safe?

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Good ratings can be deceptive

Getting a good rating doesn’t preclude serious violations that are either missed by a health inspector or that were not present when the health inspector was. Those mouse droppings on the kitchen floor may not have been there yesterday when the health inspector came by.

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If it doesn’t look pristine, it’s probably filthy

Even if the public portions of a restaurant (e.g., the dining room, the bathrooms) appear to be clean, a restaurant can nevertheless be in violation of critical food safety standards. Therefore, if there are signs that a restaurant is less than pristine, it’s a warning that things may be a lot worse in the kitchen. For example, food may be stored on the floor (a code violation in some states) or the lasagna in the freezer has been sitting there for six months (even if this isn’t a specific code violation, yuck). Things to look for include less than sparkling utensils and condiments containers, smudged or dirty walls, dropped food left on the floor underneath tables. The bottom line is that if it doesn’t even look all that clean, it’s probably filthy.

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If your local health inspector won’t eat it, maybe you should think twice

A sobering fact, but health inspectors tend to limit what they’re willing to eat in restaurants. Based on what they know, here are 15 things you should never, ever eat at a restaurant.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.