Challenges of Health Department Inspections – Cop or Teacher

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The first time I was ever stopped by a policeman was for automotive speeding. I grew up in a small town and the officer knew me from church. He also knew I had made a mistake. He could have given me a ticket but he chose to be a teacher.

According to Jim Austin, Registered Sanitarian and Restaurant Inspector, “An Inspectors job is to ensure compliance with the rules, which in turn should result in safe food being served. They are government agents possessing enforcement authority to ensure safe food. That doesn’t mean that inspectors have to have a cop attitude.”

It’s the restaurants responsibility to ensure food safety procedures are followed.

There is a mistaken food industry management or ownership mentality that it is the job of the health inspector to give a “stamp of approval” on their restaurant. Even health departments don’t pretend to be the end all in food safety. The language from a typical health department website makes it clear that the real responsibility for food safety lies with the food establishment:

One inspection may not be representative of the overall, long-term sanitation of an establishment. On any given day, a restaurant may have greater or fewer violations than observed during an inspection. In addition, some violations noted on an inspection report may have been corrected at the time of the inspection, which are indicated on the report. Follow-up inspections may be conducted for specific critical violations that cannot be corrected at the time of the inspection. Additionally, follow-up inspections may be conducted for any other violation at the discretion of the inspector. Although Retail Food Establishments are inspected by the health department, it is the establishment’s responsibility to ensure that food safety procedures are followed.” Colorado

If the health department restaurant inspector assumes an attitude of a teacher, food safety is best served. If the restaurant owner assumes the attitude of student, food safety will be improved.

“My experience is that inspectors who have the best interpersonal skills are by far the most effective in gaining compliance. There are lots of opportunities to teach food safety principles and work cooperatively with the industry”, said Jim Austin, Registered Sanitarian and Restaurant Inspector.

The governmental health inspector shoulders considerable responsibility for ensuring food safety compliance. There are times when a heavy hand is needed to protect the public or ensure understanding. Just as importantly, the inspection can be a time to learn or shine. Dining Grades can help.



Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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