Have you ever found a Band-Aid lurking in your large pepperoni pizza? No? Thank restaurant health inspectors, public health officials who work for city, state, and county health departments to enforce regional food safety guidelines and keep preparation kitchens free from practices that could lead to contamination or food-borne illness.
To find out what it’s like to get a spontaneous look at commercial kitchens, Mental Floss quizzed three inspectors—also known as sanitarians or environmental health specialists—on their duties, from proper cockroach protocol to the simple trick they use to determine whether employees are washing their hands.
Because practices can vary widely by region and even by inspector, this isn’t intended to be a definitive look at food safety protocol—but it will give you a glimpse at what these flashlight-wielding men and women encounter on a daily basis.
1. THEY NEED TO RACE THROUGH A KITCHEN.
Because restaurant inspections are unannounced, the arrival of an inspector can cause a dramatic ripple effect in kitchens that may not be up to standards. To catch as many infractions as possible, inspectors might have to dash through a kitchen the second they walk in before someone destroys the evidence. “The first thing I do is power-walk around the kitchen,” says Taylor, an environmental health specialist based in the South. “We want to see the things that won’t be there in another three or four minutes.” That can include violations involving personal drinks contaminating food prep areas, a lack of gloves, dirty cleaning cloths, or a lack of paper towels at the hand sink. Watching workers try to remedy all this in moments, Taylor says, “is like bedlam.”
2. ICE MAKERS MAKE THEM TREMBLE.
Although virtually any area of an establishment could harbor a problem, there's one area in particular that often invites trouble: the ice machine. “If you're just scooping out some ice, you really aren't seeing any of the important components where mold actually forms,” says Tim, a health inspector based in the Midwest. “Since they don't know where to look, the ice machine can go for very long periods without being sanitized.” Tim also looks at ice chutes on beverage machines because these are often maintained by outside personnel and get cleaned on an irregular basis. “You really need a flashlight and have to turn your head at awkward angles to get a good look inside these machines.”
3. THE NATIONAL CHAINS ARE PRETTY CLEAN.
Viral videos of workers wiping boogers into burgers haven’t done wonders for the reputation of fast food health practices, but Taylor says that major chains are usually pretty adherent to health codes because they conduct their own internal audits on a more regular basis than government inspections, which might only come twice a year. “Your run-of-the-mill mom and pop place won’t pay for third-party audits,” he says. “But a place like Walmart pays a whole lot of money to inspect their bakeries and delis.”
According to Bill Benson, a former private health inspector who has worked with major franchises, it’s about brand protection. “Think of Chipotle,” he says. “It was only a few locations, but they lost hundreds of millions in revenue. Big companies are risk-averse.”
4. THERE’S AN EASY WAY TO TEST FOR HAND HYGIENE.
For most health departments, gloves are considered a secondary barrier between a cook and the food they’re handling—it’s no substitution for handwashing. To check and see if employees are practicing good hygiene, Benson would make a beeline for the paper towel dispenser near the sink and draw a big “X” on the protruding part of the roll. Then he’d come back after lunch. “If the X was still there, it meant no one had washed their hands for an entire shift,” he says.
5. OWNERS CAN GET VERY UPSET.
Having points deducted from a health inspection can mean fines, undesirable letter grades posted in windows, or frequent re-inspection. Taylor says that not every proprietor will take the news of even one minor mistake very well. “I once had one owner of a day care center that prepared food get a 99 out of a possible 100 [score]. She took five steps from me, took out her iPhone, and smashed it against the wall.”
6. THEY DON’T LIKE JEWELRY.
Not in food service, anyway. “Jewelry is considered a contamination risk,” Benson says. “You don’t want something to fall into a food product. Personal items should be segregated from food production.”
7. UNMARKED BOTTLES ARE A VIOLATION.
Plastic bottles full of unknown liquids are a troublesome presence in kitchens, since employees may not necessarily know vinegar from glass cleaner, and cleaning supplies can migrate from supply areas to prep tables. “That’s a high-dollar [fine] in inspections for unlabeled bottles,” Taylor says. “You don’t know water from bleach.”
8. THEY CAN SMELL A COCKROACH PROBLEM.
Insect infestations are a grim reality of the food service industry. Even if a property is cleaned meticulously, deliveries and other outside forces can conspire to introduce cockroaches into a kitchen. After years on the job, Benson could usually tell if there’s a roach problem simply by taking a deep breath. “You get used to the smell,” he says. “It’s nutty and kind of oily. You walk into a building and you just know.”
9. LUKEWARM IS BAD NEWS.
While policies vary widely from state to state, most inspectors make sure restaurants avoid letting food sit out in the Food and Drug Administration’s “danger zone” of between 40 and 135-140°F. “If it’s cold, it’s got to be less than 41 degrees,” Taylor says. “If it’s hot, it should be above 135 degrees. Anything between that, microorganisms can start growing in food.”
10. BEWARE OF BUFFETS.
If you think allowing the general public access to mounds of food for self-service purposes might not be the most hygienic practice in the world, you’re probably on to something. “It’s not even a restaurant’s fault,” Taylor says. “I’ve seen kids sticking their hands in there, grabbing handfuls of fries."
11. THEY DON’T LIKE TO EAT AT PLACES THEY INSPECT.
It’s not about the hygienic practices—of lack thereof—they’ve witnessed. Taylor says that doubling as a customer invites its own ethical issues. “If you give them a low score, they might come back with, ‘Well, you had a sandwich here last Tuesday, we can’t be that bad,’” he says. “I’ve also gone to places just for a beer and they’ve brought me fried pickles on the house. I can’t accept those. You can’t be bribing a health inspector with fried pickles.”
12. LEMONADE STANDS ARE OUTSIDE THEIR JURISDICTION.
While school cafeterias, public pools, and even tattoo parlors can be part of their rounds, health inspectors generally don’t get to harass curbside bartenders. “It specifically states in the [local] food code that children under 12 are allowed to sell non-perishable food products on the streets or on front lawns,” Tim says. Buyer beware.
All images courtesy of iStock.