“Health inspection today.” These words can make any manager’s stomach drop to the floor. Even if everything is picture perfect, anxiety is still likely to hit during an inspection. A visit from a health inspector can be daunting and many people feel like it is a test that they are bound to fail. Fortunately, inspections do not need to be so intimidating!
You actually share common goals with health inspectors. Both of you want to prevent foodborne illnesses and keep the public safe and happy. The truth is that health inspectors are a very valuable asset to your establishment. Typically, they will have a degree related to food safety and have undergone rigorous training. They can help identify areas that you can improve in, which can decrease food safety risks. They also can help you with your food safety policies and procedures.
Vern Johnson, an environmental health director in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has over 20 years of experience with health inspections. He believes that managers and inspectors should work together. He says, “Managers have the retail knowledge of how to take a product from the backdoor to the table. But inspectors wear the food safety hat. What managers lack, inspectors have.” When managers and health inspectors work together, it can improve your business and save you from a food safety disaster.
We asked Johnson to give us an idea of what to expect during an inspection. Knowing what to expect during an inspection can also help to calm your nerves. Although health departments may differ in how they handle inspections, there are definitely similarities across the board.
Johnson explained how his inspectors perform their inspections:
- When the inspector arrives, they will sit down with your operator first. Together, they will talk about the establishment’s menu and what its processes are. This helps to start everything off with a common understanding; and the inspector will know more about your establishment and how it is run.
- Then, there will be a tour of the facility. A great way to help the inspector to truly understand how your establishment is run is to treat them like a new employee. In fact, Vern often instructs managers, “Treat us like we’re a new employee and you’re explaining how you do this thing called food safety and food service.” Teach them how you do things. As you go throughout the facility, there may be some violations or gaps in safety. But, believe it or not, inspectors do not wear violations as a badge of honor. They want to help you!
- The inspector will then point out issues and suggest ways to improve your establishment’s food safety. Your programs may be working wonderfully, but there might be just a few things that your staff missed. The inspector can help you find those things and work with you to resolve the issues. Working with your inspector can improve your business and keep your customers safe.
The best thing to know about inspectors is, “They don’t expect perfection.” They understand the demands of foodservice. What they want to know is: are your programs working? Is your food staying safe? When you keep this in mind, an inspection isn’t a test. It is a check-up to make sure that everything is going well. If there is something that needs to be changed, it doesn’t mean that you have failed. Simply, it is an invitation to improve, which will ultimately make your food safer and your customers happier.
Help You Help Yourself
An inspection isn’t the beginning or end of food safety. As Johnson says, “What you do when we’re not there is more important than when we are there.” An inspector’s goal is to help you help yourself and your team. A good inspector will invite you to consider issues on your own, before offering solutions. During your next inspection, try to think of solutions to problems the inspector points out before they offer answers. Your inspector can help improve the safety of your establishment.
Johnson talks about one experience of helping a team. An owner asked if Johnson would come to one of their staff meetings to explain some issues and offer solutions. Johnson agreed, but wanted them to find their own solutions. He states, “I point out some issues and let them solve their own issues that fit into their own systems.” It is much more effective for you to work together as a team to figure out solutions to the problems you’re having. You know your procedures and systems best! And when you and your team work together, it’s much more likely that these new solutions will work—and continue to work.
Health inspectors can also help you manage your resources. If you have questions, especially about opening a new location or even starting from scratch, they know what the local requirements are. Many health departments welcome owners and operators coming into their office and asking questions. In fact, they may help you navigate all of the forms and documents necessary to run a food establishment. And although it’s not their first and foremost job, they may be able to point you in the right direction for approved suppliers, certain locations, and more. Inspectors want you to succeed!
If Johnson had one thing to say to food managers and workers, it would be this: “Our goal is not to shut down restaurants. Our goal is to find things right. Our mutual goal is to lower food risks. Everyone wins when we achieve that.”