How to Make Sense of an Inspection Report

The modern theory of food-safety inspections emphasizes education of food-service workers over easy-to-understand punishment. Reports are not written with consumers in mind. Some jurisdictions mark them as overall in or out of compliance. Philadelphia (shown below) and Bucks County do not.

Most jurisdictions have adopted versions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s model food code . The top priority – the first section in the report below – is on practices (like undercooked food) that are known to contribute to food-borne illness; a single out-of-compliance is supposed to trigger a reinspection. The second section includes conditions (like inaccurate thermometers) that make those practices more likely; several of these may prompt a return visit as well. The checklist represents several hundred individual regulations.

But food-safety experts say that the vast majority of food-borne illness traced to restaurants is due to a handful of practices (described below). An inspection report is accurate only for the slice of time when the sanitarian was there. Still, these issues – especially if they come up in repeat inspections – may be warning signs for potential problems.

Click on the tabs to learn more about the key issues to look for.

TEMPERATURES

Cooking at temperatures high enough to kill pathogens (generally 145 degrees F for fish, meat and pork; 165 degrees for poultry and wild game) is not enough. Clostridium perfringens can grow in cooked food that isn’t cooled fast enough (from 135 degrees F to 70 degrees in two hours, down to 41 degrees in six hours) or held at cold enough temperatures (41 or below).

LOCAL LAWS

Sanitarians look for compliance with several local laws related to food and health, from a ban on artificial trans fats to mandatory signage about the risks of drinking alcohol while pregnant.

RODENTS

Rodents carry plenty of pathogens but they are usually found in the basement, far from food, where they are unlikely to spread illness. “They could represent a significant hazard,” said Craig Hedberg, a public health professor at the University of Minnesota, “if they are found on active food-handling surfaces.”

CONTAMINATION

Cross-contamination – not just from hands, but utensils and physical surfaces – is a big source of food poisoning. Raw chicken placed two shelves above salad items in the cooler can drip. Improperly used or sanitized knives can carry pathogens from a food that will later be cooked (meat) to one that won’t (lettuce). Potentially contaminated foods must be tossed out. Returning utensils to the right hook helps protect them, and any food they come in contact with. Items No. 13 and 14 are the second- and third-most cited food-borne illness risk-factor violations in Philadelphia.

HYGIENE

Most restaurant-related food-borne illness originates with dirty or ungloved hands. Touching raw meat and then vegetables transmits salmonella; scratching your face and then putting a sandwich on a plate could spread Staphylococcus aureus. Sanitarians ask workers to describe how they wash (minimum 20 seconds, vigorously, including arms and under fingernails), and may request demonstrations. They also look for physical conditions that impede hygiene: Is hot water hot enough (at least 100 degrees F) to help remove contaminating microbes? Is there soap in the dispenser? Is big equipment blocking the handwashing sink? Item No. 8 is the single most common violation in the top (food-borne illness) category.

KNOWLEDGE

An employee trained in food safety and able to spot, say, a worker with symptoms of norovirus who should be ordered home immediately must be present during all business hours. Absence of a certified employee is one of the few checklist items that researchers have linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness in field studies. It also is among the most common violations, although it is frequently corrected during the inspection – a manager calls someone in on a day off.

OBSERVATIONS

The "Observations" section lists details of violations, and the exact regulatory code that lays out the requirements.

The most important comments in the entire report may be buried near the end, including requests to "cease and desist" operations until fixes are made, and pending court dates. Remarks like "not satisfactory" are telling but unofficial: Philadelphia does not grade inspections as pass or fail; serious violations simply mean reinspections and, eventually, fees, closure, or hearings before a judge.

TEMPERATURE CHECKS

Temperatures of foods are recorded. Regulations to prevent bacterial growth are very specific about how long and at what temperatures different foods must be heated, cooked, thawed, and held.


Demonstration of knowledge

An employee trained in food safety and able to spot, say, a worker with symptoms of norovirus who should be ordered home immediately must be present during all business hours. Absence of a certified employee is one of the few checklist items that researchers have linked to outbreaks of foodborne illness in field studies. It also is among the most common violations, although it is frequently corrected during the inspection – a manager calls someone in on a day off.




Preventing contamination by hazards

Most restaurant-related foodborne illness originates with dirty or ungloved hands. Touching raw meat and then vegetables transmits salmonella; scratching your face or handling paper money and then putting a sandwich on a plate could spread the flu. Sanitarians ask workers to describe how they wash (minimum 20 seconds, vigorously, including arms and under fingernails), and may request demonstrations. They also look for physical conditions that impede hygiene: Is hot water hot enough (at least 100 degrees F) to kill bacteria? Is there soap in the dispenser? Is big equipment blocking the handwashing sink? Item No. 8 is the single most common violation in the top (foodborne illness) category.




Protection from contamination

Cross-contamination – not just from hands, but utensils and physical surfaces – is a big source of food poisoning. Raw chicken placed two shelves above salad items in the cooler can drip. Improperly used or sanitized knives can carry pathogens from a food that will later be cooked (meat) to one that won’t (lettuce). Potentially contaminated foods must be tossed out. Returning utensils to the right hook helps protect them, and any food they come in contact with. Items No. 13 and 14 are the second- and third-most cited foodborne illness risk factor violations in Philadelphia.




Insects, rodents and animals

Rodents carry plenty of pathogens but they are usually found in the basement, far from food, where they are unlikely to spread illness. “They could represent a significant hazard,” said Craig Hedberg, a public health professor at the University of Minnesota, “if they are found on active food-handling surfaces.”




Potentially hazardous food time/temperature

Cooking at temperatures high enough to kill pathogens (generally 145 degrees F for fish, meat and pork; 165 degrees for poultry and wild game) is not enough. Clostridium perfringen and Staphylococus aureus can grow in cooked food that isn’t cooled fast enough (from 135 degrees F to 70 degrees in two hours, down to 41 degrees in six hours) or held at cold enough temperatures (41 or below).




Local laws

Sanitarians look for compliance with several local laws related to food and health, from a ban on artificial trans fats to mandatory signage about the risks of drinking alcohol while pregnant.




Temperature checks

Temperatures of foods are recorded. Regulations to prevent bacterial growth are very specific about how long and at what temperatures different foods must be heated, cooked, thawed, and held.




Observations and corrective actions

The "Observations" section lists details of violations, and the exact regulatory code that lays out the requirements.

The most important comments in the entire report may be buried near the end, including requests to "cease and desist" operations until fixes are made, and pending court dates. Remarks like "not satisfactory" are telling but unofficial: Philadelphia does not grade inspections as pass or fail; serious violations simply mean reinspections and, eventually, fees, closure, or hearings before a judge.



Click here to explore the Clean Plates restaurant inspection database.
SOURCE: U.S. Food and Drug Administration; City of Philadelphia Regulations Governing Food Establishments; Inquirer research
DON SAPATKIN / Inquirer Staff Writer; OLIVIA HALL / Philly.com