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How Customers Can Read Food Safety Inspection Reports

Interest in food safety has been on the rise, particularly in the wake of widely reported foodborne illness outbreaks. “Ask Us” is a monthly feature in which we answer questions and offer perspectives relevant to consumers and diners interested in food safety issues.

Every restaurant in the U.S. must submit to food safety inspections, which audit the store on its cleanliness, food safety practices and adherence to any local statutes. Because the inspection authorities are city-, county- or state-based, the specific inspection criteria and reporting can vary widely; but in general, every inspection report will contain similar elements. Here’s what you need to understand about the food safety reports you read, starting with an example.

Grade: C  
Severity Violation Comments
Non-critical Cleaning Floor and walls are filthy at kitchen. Repeat offense.
Non-critical Cleaning Exterior of food equipment racks and countertops are filthy.
Critical Temperature Failure to provide hot water (min. 100°F) at hand wash sink.
Non-critical Cleaning Potential contamination to food from unclean equipment. Repeat offense.
Critical Temperature Ground beef patties stored at 46°F.

1: Grade

The inspection grade can be a letter grade, a number score or anything else the inspection authority wants to use. Most scoring systems, however, will reflect an approach to grading that consumers can intuitively understand. As in school, an “A” is superior to a “B” or “C” grade, for example.

2: Severity

Most reports differentiate between “critical” and “non-critical” violations. We talk about this distinction here. The key: critical items have a direct impact on potential food safety hazards. For example, if the restaurant fails to maintain proper temperatures for food in storage or during preparation, it creates conditions favorable to bacterial growth. That’s crucial for food safety.

3: Violation

Reports that categorize violations can help readers understand broad areas of weakness for the restaurant. Pay particularly close attention to temperature issues, because those are direct contributors to potential food borne illness outbreaks.

4: Inspector Comments

Most reports include some kind of detail about violations. These comments provide contextual information that helps the reader to understand what’s happening behind-the-scenes at that restaurant.

5: History

Many inspection authorities will maintain histories. Pay attention to trends over time, but be aware that follow-up inspections may have been scheduled. If a restaurant suddenly jumps from a C to an A, it’s possible they learned their lesson; but they may also have known in advance that the inspector was returning at that particular date.

Read more Ask Us entries, or contact ComplianceMate with questions.