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A restaurant health inspection is an inspection of a restaurant conducted by a representative of a public health agency who confirms that conditions in the restaurant are safe. The goal of health inspections is to prevent outbreaks of food borne illness by keeping restaurants safe, clean, and sanitary. Many cities maintain public records of restaurant health inspections, allowing citizens to look up their favorite restaurants to see their performance in past inspections, and some cities require restaurants to post the results of their latest inspection for the benefit of customers.
Typically, a restaurant health inspection is conducted at random, so that the restaurant does not have time to prepare. The health inspector's goal is to see the restaurant under normal operating conditions, to get an idea of what daily operations are like. He or she enters the restaurant, presents credentials, and then inspects the restaurant from top to toe for any signs of violations of the health code.
Health inspectors are especially concerned with issues like proper holding temperatures for food, the cleanliness of the restaurant, and the knowledge of the staff. The health inspector may ask random staff members about food safety to confirm that they know how to handle food safely, and the health inspector can also take samples from various areas of the restaurant to look for bacteria and other disease-causing agents. During a restaurant health inspection, the inspector also typically points out any issues he or she identifies.
When a problem is identified, the health inspector makes a note of it. Certain type of health code violations are considered grounds for immediate closure, in which case the restaurant will need to fix the problem and undergo another restaurant health inspection to prove that the problem has been addressed. Other problems are considered important, but more minor, and the health inspector will be sure to check that they have been addressed the next time he or she is doing an inspection of the restaurant. Too many minor violations can trigger a closure order.
While a restaurant health inspection is random, one may also be specifically ordered in response to a tipoff from a customer or employee. If a restaurant refuses an inspection, the health inspector can return with a warrant which obligates compliance. Health inspectors are not usually considered with the immigration status of employees, as they are more concerned with food safety than anything else.
Some restaurants prepare for health inspections by holding random drills in which a manager or another member of the staff conducts a random mock inspection of the restaurant. This is designed to keep employees on their toes, and to identify problems which will be spotted by the health inspector. Practice inspections can be performed using the same checklist utilized by the health department, to ensure that all aspects of a real restaurant health inspection are covered.
@Grivusangel -- Yeah, it does. It always irritated me when I worked for a steak house when they would come during the lunch rush. No one has *time* to check the frickin' mop water for bleach levels!
Even now, when I see a health rating for a place, I always look at the specifics. There are things you can look for on a report, like how many "critical" items they have, and if you know how to read it, you can nearly always tell if they came in during a rush. I don't get too excited about mop water, personal drinks in the prep area, etc.
There are some things, though, that are dead giveaways to a nasty/badly run place: presence of insects or rodents; food out of temperature; expired food in the fridge/freezer -- that kind of thing. That's when you know a place has real problems.
I worked one summer at a fast food place. There was a Chinese restaurant next door, and the health inspector usually hit there, first. They would always call to tell us the inspector was on the way and we went into action. Just 10 minutes' notice was usually enough for us to get everything squared away.
You're not supposed to do that, but it happens all the time.