In knowing what most often catches health inspectors’ attention, restaurants can pay particular attention to kitchen hot spots

Cracking the Health CodeWhen it comes to health codes and food safety, Alex Lyudmir isn’t taking any chances.

The co-owner of Rizzo’s Fine Pizza Co., a two-unit, family-owned concept that’s been dishing up pies in New York City since 1959, Lyudmir believes the quality of Rizzo’s food is as important as the environment in which it is prepared.

“We take food safety very seriously. We owe that to our patrons,” Lyudmir says. “Besides having great tasting pizza, that’s how we stay ahead of the curve.”

It’s a mindset Rich Pruckler, a public health investigator with the City of Denver’s Department of Public Health & Environment, says many restaurant establishments would be wise to share, particularly given the fines health code violations can bring and the damaging effect food safety missteps can have on a pizzeria’s reputation.

“When operators can combine culinary passion with a responsibility to their patrons and food safety, that’s often a recipe for success,” says Pruckler, a former restaurant manager himself.

When inspecting a restaurant, Pruckler says he and many other health inspectors are most concerned with practices that can get people sick, and three specific issues draw particular attention:

• Food temperatures. The most universally common health code violation in restaurants? That’s easy, says Mary FitzGerald, founder of Los Angeles-based Safe & Sound Food Safety Consultants.

“It’s always temperature violations,” FitzGerald says.

Leaving foods such as sausage or cheese or cooked pizza out too long at room temperature increases the risk of illness-causing bacteria. Pizzerias should be mindful of keeping hot food at or above 140 F while cold food should sit at or below 40 F.

In a pizzeria kitchen, Pruckler acknowledges it can be particularly challenging to keep food cold given the residual heat pizza ovens produce and staff members’ consistent opening and closing of cooler doors. He suggests “common sense tactics” such as keeping lids on containers, shutting doors, using ice bags and turning the cooler’s temperature down, albeit incrementally. Operators might also store potentially non-hazardous foods such as croutons or breads closest to the hottest areas and use a calibrated thermometer — one cleaned and sanitized between uses — to regularly test the internal temperature of foods.

• Cross contamination. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600 million people around the world fall ill after eating contaminated food each year. As a result, inspectors are particularly sensitive to cross contamination – the transfer of bacteria from one item to another.

Here, some mindful practices consistently executed go a long way. Food contact surfaces, equipment and utensils should be cleaned and sanitized or properly stored after each use, a critical step to eliminating illness-causing pathogens. A cook, for instance, cannot use a pizza cutter and then simply set it right at his side for the next use, reminds Leon Lubarsky of New York City-based Letter Grade Consulting.

Restaurants should also use separate equipment to prep and handle different foods. Dedicating one set of cutting boards and utensils to raw meat and another to produce, for example, reduces cross-contamination risks.

Equipment, meanwhile, must be cleaned each day, a recognized necessity some manufacturers have weaved into product design. Hobart’s Legacy mixers, for instance, come with exclusive quick-release agitators and removable bowl guards to ease cleaning and minimize cross-contamination risks.

“It is important to thoroughly wipe down the mixer daily and run the agitators, bowls and bowl guards through a triple-bay sink or ware washing product to ensure they are properly cleaned,” Hobart senior marketing manager Carolyn Bilger says.

• Lackluster cleanliness and hygiene standards. Poor cleanliness and hygiene standards frequently draw the ire of health code inspectors, especially given how easily restaurant staff can avoid such violations.

Pruckler urges restaurants to implement a personal hygiene program centered on regular handwashing in the designated handwashing sink, glove use and hair restraints. He also suggests ownership develop a clear employee illness policy.

“When someone is vomiting or has diarrhea, they shouldn’t be working,” Pruckler reminds.

In addition, restaurants should have established protocols for cleaning equipment and work surfaces, while wiping cloths should be stored in buckets containing the proper concentration of sanitizing solution. Most municipalities require the solution to be 50 parts per million chlorine, something operators can assess regularly with test strips. Notably, effective pre-mixed solutions such as quaternary ammonium can save time and money.

5 Steps to Limiting Health Code Violations

  1. Leadership sets the tone. When management takes a blasé attitude toward health codes, violations often rise. “The number one cause of violations is a lack of interest or concern by the operator,” food safety consultant Mary FitzGerald says. “Many do not take food safety seriously and (do) not put the money, time and effort behind the training and accountability.”
  2. A documented cleaning plan. Attorney and food safety consultant Leon Lubarsky recommends operators have visible cleaning logs defining what’s to be done and when. To drive accountability, the designated staff member and manager should both sign off following the completion of each task. “Our clients who use cleaning logs tend to do better on their inspections,” Lubarsky says.
  3. School is cool. Lubarsky urges his clients to hire workers with a recognized food handling certification or to provide incentives for staff to obtain such credentials. This way, workers understand food safety basics to help curb violations. Most health departments offer basic food safety courses while the National Restaurant Association boasts its ServSafe program as well.
  4. Never stop training. Constant training on food safety is a must, especially given the turnover many restaurant kitchens face. FitzGerald suggests operators perform their own daily inspections and regularly reinforce critical practices like handwashing, sanitizing protocols and taking food temperatures, perhaps even quizzing staff on what they are doing and why.
  5. Ignorance is no excuse. While many municipalities share common food safety guidelines and a number of universal food safety best practices transcend geography, operators should nevertheless understand what their governing health department requires as some municipalities enforce their own nuanced rules. “Knowledge will help avoid violations,” FitzGerald says.

Written by: Daniel P. Smith – Featured in: