If you want to excel in your health department inspections, the best way to do so is to understand the process, not try to shortcut it.
We have already talked about how inspectors increasingly look to verify your understanding and implementation of HACCP principles. One way to ensure that both your Department of Public Health and its visiting inspector perceive your operation as meeting these standards is through better communication.
In this column, I’d like to suggest some ways you can improve your lines of communication with your health department, as well as the perception it has of your operation.
Initiate an introduction to the Director of Public Health. If you have recently joined your organization, you can send the same press release to the health department that you prepare for the trade and local press. If you have been there for some time, consider dropping a note to the Director, saying you have upgraded your sanitation process to comply with the new HACCPprocedures and inviting a visit to your operation so you can verify the system. You might also request that health department personnel be available at some of your sanitation training sessions as a resource to employees.
Directly request an inspection if your food service hasn’t been inspected for quite a while. When you are seen as proactive, you are also seen as an operator who wants to exceed standards. In all likelihood, the inspector will give you suggestions for areas you may have overlooked, as well as additional time to address them.
A note of caution: never offer any employee of the health department any gift with monetary value. This especially relates to free meals at your operation. They are prohibited from accepting such offers and typically are required to report them to their superiors.
Go well beyond the minimum requirements for certification. For example, in Pennsylvania any restaurant in Philadelphia is required to be certified by the city. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a required certification that exempts those with Philadelphia certificates, as well as public, educational and healthcare facilities. My advice is to ignore the exemptions and apply for every certification you are eligible to get. The cost is minimal and has multiple benefits.
It shows you are interested in implementing "best practices" by going beyond the minimum. And since virtually all certificates are earned and awarded to the individual, employees can use their certification in other locations (this can be helpful if you sometimes cater a sports camp or satellite operation outside a local geography).
Require or enable universal certification. Always enable or require every employee in your operation to become food safety certified. At many operations, employees are required to obtain certification in order to apply for promotion to cook and supervisory positions. Another common local requirement is to have a certified employee on duty whenever a restaurant is open to the public.
By enabling every employee to obtain certification, you will identify those who are interested in advancement. You will also prepare your operation for scheduling emergencies.
Implement an effective self-inspection process. Some municipalities require that a self inspection be on file when the local inspector visits. It is a good practice to have a continuous file of inspections on record, regardless of any requirement.
Always maintain a professional atitude when an inspector visits, even if you are both well acquainted. Be sure that you are never defensive.
Many busy health departments inspect only after receiving a customer’s complaint about a perceived violation (another common cause is a complaint from a disgruntled or recently terminated employee). Common complaints include a food handler’s failure to use plastic gloves or hairnet, insect infestations or other unsanitatary practices or situations.
If you can identify the specific nature of any complaint, discuss the observations with the inspector. If they are valid, document what you have done to address or improve the situation. If at all possible during the inspection, walk with the inspector even though it will typically take place at your busiest time. Take notes, and afterwards, establish definite dates by which any noted violations must be corrected.
You may suspect the source of the complaint, want to know the source, or even confirm that it has come from someone who may have reported it previously. Regardless of the situation, do not ask the inspector to identify the person filing the complaint, as that person’s privacy is legally protected.
Remember, good communication takes time and effort, but it will pay off both in terms of your food safety reputation and your ability to exceed inspection requirements in the future.
Don Jacobs, FMP is a principal with SPA Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in advising food service operators on strategic, operational and production issues.