50 Common Restaurant Food Safety Violations and Tips to Avoid Them

antimicrobial menu cleaning restaurant food safety sanitization
antimicrobial menu cleaning restaurant food safety sanitization

Article contributed by Dhruv Kishore Bole

There are over a million restaurants across the country and they all are inspected by food inspectors to ensure that food served to the public is safe. The majority of food poisoning cases are linked to restaurants because food safety violations that cause food poisoning, occur frequently in restaurants.

Food inspectors are front-line public servants who are on the lookout for restaurants that sell unsafe food. They conduct random and unannounced inspections to check whether employees follow safe food handling practices and that the restaurant has adequate facilities.

We look at the 50 most common food safety violations discovered during restaurant inspections and how restaurant operators can avoid them. Knowing about the food safety violations will not only help to reduce food safety risks, but will also make it easier to pass restaurant inspections.

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1: Exteriors in unsanitary condition

Unhygienic conditions around the restaurant attract pests, allowing them to congregate around the building. Keep the entrance of the restaurant in good working order and the surrounding area clean, not only to make an excellent first impression but also to prevent pests from getting inside the restaurant building.

Remove debris, bushes and stagnant water from the surrounding area since these are places where pests hide and breed before making their way to the restaurant. Plant trees at least eight to fifteen feet away from the building and shrubs at least three feet away. Inspect exteriors of the building regularly to check if any restoration or structural improvements are required.

Schedule daily cleaning of the restaurant’s entrance and surrounding areas and keep an eye on daily cleaning activities to ensure that environment remains clean and pest-free.

2: Visibly dirty kitchen equipment

During inspections, equipment such as espresso machines, ice machines, grillers and ovens are often found dirty. Unhygienic equipment are one of the common causes of food contamination.

To keep equipment sanitary and prevent cross-contamination of food, it is important to clean and sanitize equipment between uses. For instance, clean espresso machine nozzles after each shift and wipe down the steam wand after each use to avoid clogging and buildup of bacteria in and around the steam wand.

Use espresso machine cleaning kits once a month and descale machine every two or three months. Ice machine is another potential source of contamination. Maintain a clean ice machine that is free of mineral deposits, slime, rust buildup and pests. Soda guns have also been shown to harbor disease-causing pathogens.

It is essential to clean soda guns on a regular basis to keep them free of syrup and bio-slime buildup. Keep grillers and ovens clean and make sure crumb trays in pizza ovens are free of debris and food spills.

Maintain separate buckets for cleaning, rinsing and sanitizing and replace cleaning and sanitizing solution every two hours at the very least or as needed to ensure adequate cleaning and sanitation. Remember to rinse the surface with clean water or wipe it down with a wet towel before sanitizing.

3: Poorly maintained walk-in freezers

Restaurant walk-in refrigerators are frequently found in poor working order. This is one of the most common reasons why restaurants fail health inspections. Everything from incorrect temperature to grease buildup on fans, overhead water leaks and mold growth poses a severe threat to food safety.

Make sure walk-in refrigeration units are operating at recommended temperature and there is no variance in the ambient temperature of the walk-in freezer and the temperature of the food stored. Keep a probing thermometer in the freezer to check whether the recommended temperature is maintained.

It is essential to see how well the refrigerator door gaskets are holding up.

Worn-out gaskets prevent the door from closing properly, affecting the refrigerator’s ability to maintain temperature. Grease buildup on the exhaust fan and water dripping from fan units also present food contamination risk. Mold growth in walk-in freezers is a typical problem because of high moisture levels.

It is essential to get rid of mold before it contaminates the food and affects the health of the staff. Deep clean the walk-in freezer regularly and if the infestation is severe, hire a mold remediation company. Make sure the staff does walk-in freezer inspections every night to ensure everything is in working order. Work out an annual maintenance contract (AMC) with the refrigeration vendor to repair and maintain the unit.

4: Using dirty rags to clean equipment and food preparation surfaces

Cleaning cooking equipment and food preparation surfaces such as work tables with dirty rags is also a violation since pathogens can spread one surface to another and contaminate food. Use rags that are clean and washed daily and replace them on a regular basis. Separate cloths should be used for cleaning, rinsing and applying sanitizer.

5: Food not kept at recommended temperature in buffets

When serving food at a buffet, keep hot cooked food hot and cold food cold, at recommended minimum temperature. Keeping food at the appropriate temperature prevents bacteria from growing and causing food poisoning.

Regularly inspect hot holding equipment such as chafing dishes and soup tureens to ensure that it can hold hot cooked food at a safe minimum temperature. When serving cold food at a buffet, place food on top of an ice-filled container and replenish the ice as needed.

6: No supply of potable water in food preparation area

Restaurants are often accused of using non-potable water to prepare, wash and cook food. Ensure that there is an adequate supply of potable water in the kitchen for cooking and cleaning. Using potable water not only improves the flavor of the food but also prevents food from contamination, if the quality of the local water supply is a concern.

7: Grease and moisture build up on walls, floors and distribution piping

In moist environments like kitchen, accumulation of grease and moisture on walls, floors and distribution pipes is a regular occurrence. Such accumulation causes mold growth, which can lead to food contamination. Grease buildup on floors can also lead to workplace accidents such as slips and falls.

Examine kitchen ventilation system to check if poor ventilation is causing such accumulation and seek the help of a licensed ventilation engineer to resolve the issue.

Clean all kitchen and dining areas after each day’s closing and schedule deep cleaning activities at regular intervals under the supervision of the Chef in charge or kitchen supervisor.  The accumulation of grease on ducts is a fire hazard to the restaurant. To clear the buildup, hire an outsourced vendor to clean the hood and ducts at least once every 3-4 months.

8: Cracks or crevices on walls and floors

Cracks, crevices or broken tiles on walls and floors are pest harborage points. Seal all cracks, gaps and holes with weather foam or clear caulk to prevent pest entry. If there are significant damages on walls and floors, seek the help of specialists.

Health inspectors catch many food service employees off guard with DIY (Do It Yourself) repairs using cardboard and newspapers. The use of cardboard and newspapers is a fire hazard and a major no-no in food service environments.

9: Paint peeling off the kitchen walls

Peeling wall paint is an obvious food safety risk. Food contamination may occur if peeling paint falls into the food. To fix this, remove the peeling areas and apply fresh coats of primer and paint.

10: Pooling of water on floors and intersections

Standing water on floors harbor pathogens and release bioaerosols into the air that create an unsanitary environment leading to food contamination. To prevent water from collecting on floors, slope the floor towards the drain.

Accumulation of food waste and water in floor and drainage intersections is another typical violation reported in restaurant kitchens. It is important to cove all floor and drain intersections to prevent food debris from collecting as this could attract pests.

11: Presence of pests in the kitchen and dining areas

Roughly twenty percent of the total restaurant inspection score is dedicated to the pest control component. Pests are a risk to food safety and when it comes to pest control, prevention is always better than cure.

Effective pest control in food service establishments is a legal necessity in food safety regulations. The most effective way to prevent infestation is to keep the environment clean and hygienic, seal all possible points of entry and remove sources of food, water and shelter that pest need to survive.

Keep doors at the rear exit closed when not in use because rodents can get in through the back entrance. Look for signs of infestation and pest damage like droppings, nesting, strange smells and structural damages. Schedule regular exterminator visit to identify and eliminate the conditions that are causing pest problems and develop a treatment plan to prevent pests from returning.

12: Overflowing trash cans

In restaurants, overflowing trash cans and collection of waste around dumpsters are a common sight. Such an environment attracts pests, contaminates the air and causes respiratory diseases.

Always use single-use garbage liner for garbage bins and empty garbage cans in the kitchen and dining areas regularly, such as after each meal or as needed.

When planning for waste bins, it is important to consider the total number of waste generation sources (e.g., kitchens, dining rooms and food storage areas), the estimated waste volume and the kind of waste generated.

If waste containers are not planned properly, it may lead to waste bins getting overfilled, creating an unhygienic environment, or they may require frequent emptying, exposing employees to waste hazards (For instance- bioaerosols).

Also, make sure dumpster cleaning and inspecting for damages is a part of the regular cleaning and maintenance schedule.

13: Soiled dishes left overnight

Leaving dirty dishes in the sink is an open invitation to pests. Cockroaches, flies, and ants are attracted to leftover food on dishes. In order to keep pests away, ensure that soiled dishes are washed as soon as possible and that the sink is free of soiled dishes especially before leaving for the night.

14: Employees not wearing personal protective equipment

Do not permit employees to work in food preparation areas unless they wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hair coverings, aprons, uniform, safety shoes and disposable gloves.

When working in a kitchen, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) helps to avoid not just the spread of pathogens to food, but also injury from burns, falls and cuts.

15: Employees eating and drinking in the kitchen and dining areas

Employees are not allowed to eat in food preparation, storage and dining areas because body fluids like sneeze and saliva can contaminate food and cause food-borne illness.

To protect the safety of food, employees must eat outside of the food preparation, storage and service areas and personal food and drinks must be kept on a separate dedicated shelf away from these areas.

16: Employees not following proper handwashing procedures

Employees are often seen having a relaxed attitude towards handwashing. Food safety regulations have described proper handwashing procedures but employees often fail to follow them. Proper handwashing prevents the spread of pathogens from the hands of employees to food.

Encourage staff to wash their hands before, during and after working with food, before and after handling raw meat and after using the washroom. Remember sanitizers are not a substitute for handwashing.

17: Employees sleeping in kitchen and food service areas

Hygiene inspectors often discover employees sleeping in food preparation, service or storage areas. Employees carry a variety of infections and sleeping or living in these areas can spread germs throughout the restaurant.

Employees are required to rest in break rooms during shift break.

18: Employees keeping their personal belongings in food preparation areas

Employees are seen storing personal items like uniforms and aprons in food storage shelves and cabinets. This is a hygiene violation that makes food unsafe to eat, hence such practices should be discouraged.

Employees are also prohibited to keep their cell phones in areas where food is prepared, stored or served. Phones are carriers of pathogens that can contaminate hands and spread pathogens from hand to food. To keep food safe, it is best to leave the phone in locker rooms.

19: Improper use of gloves

When preparing food, wearing gloves helps to prevent cross-contamination. Gloves are a secondary barrier between the chef and the food they are handling.

Wash hands before putting on gloves and change gloves when they are torn or visibly dirty. Also, change gloves when switching between different food items such as raw meat to ready-to-eat (RTE) food items.

20: Incorrect thawing of food

This is another common food safety mistake reported in most restaurant inspections. Meat products like beef and chicken are often thawed using incorrect procedures either at room temperature or on the preparation table, or in standing water in the dishwashing sink. 

Always thaw frozen meat using standard procedures such as under cold running water, in the refrigerator or in a microwave oven to avoid growth of pathogens.

21: Food left out at room temperature for an extended period of time

Never leave hot cooked food out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Pathogens can grow in food and cause food poisoning.

22: Food Not Labelled Prior To Storage

It is important to date label the food before storage. Such practices will help staff identify food inside the container quickly and determine whether food is past its expiration date. Bacterial growth could occur in food that has reached its expiration date, resulting in foodborne illness.

23: Touching Ready-to-Eat food with bare hands

Touching ready-to-eat foods with bare hands could transfer pathogens from hand to food. When handling ready-to-eat food, always wear gloves and use a separate, clean cutting board and knife.

24: Food stored in dirty containers

Cross-contamination is more likely when food is stored in dirty containers, for example, containers with a sticky buildup. Always store food in airtight, food-safe containers and ensure they are washed, sanitized and dried between usages.

25: Spoons left in food storage containers

It is not good practice to leave spoons or measuring cups in food containers. Since spoons come into contact with bare hands, there is a risk of cross-contamination of food items. It is better to use a fresh spoon each time.

26: Employees using aprons to wipe hands

During inspections, it is common to see employees wiping their hands with their aprons. This is a food safety violation because wiping hands with aprons contaminates them again. To ensure hand hygiene, always wipe hands with a single-use paper towel.

27: Handling ice with bare hands

ice machines cubes handling ice storage bin lurking
ice machines cubes handling ice storage bin lurking

Ice is considered food and it should be handled as such. Bartenders must always wash their hands before handling ice. Using bare hands to remove ice can contaminate the ice since germs can be transferred from the hands to the ice.

Use ice tongs or scoops for taking out ice to prevent contamination. Never use glass to scoop ice because the glass can break or crack in the ice and get into the drinks.

Ice scoop handles coming in contact with ice can also contaminate ice. Keep the scoop in a clean and dry container or Hang the ice scoop outside the ice dispensing machine.

28: Same mop used for washroom and dining area

Using the same mop in the washroom, kitchen, and service areas can result in contamination of floor surfaces, as washrooms are rife with disease-causing pathogens.

Keep separate mops, dustpans and brooms for these areas and color code them for easier identification. Another traditional restaurant violation is using dirty mops to mop the floors and without changing the cleaning solution between cleaning activities. These practices can spread contaminants from previous cleaning operations to floors.

For successful cleaning, it is important to replace detergent solution between tasks and to thoroughly wash, rinse and dry mops after each use.

29: Staff not removing aprons before using washrooms

Another food safety tip is to remove aprons before using the washroom. Washrooms are microbiologically dirty and wearing aprons in the toilet could directly or indirectly contaminate the uniform.

This will bring germs into the kitchen. Hang up the aprons before going to the washroom and put the apron back before working with food.

30: Improper food storage in Refrigerator

Another aspect that food inspectors look for is how the food is stored in refrigerators. Cross-contamination can occur in the refrigerator due to accidental contact between food items.

Always store raw meat and poultry in a container or in a sealed plastic bag below ready-to-eat food items to eliminate the possibility of accidental contact.

31: Unclean storage shelves

Storage shelves are identified as a potential source of contamination. They have nooks and crevices that collect food waste, grease and dust particles and make cleaning difficult.

Invest in storage shelves that are easy to clean, have a smoother finish and are made of food-safe materials. Keep shelves clean and in good working order, with no signs of chipping or rusting that could contaminate food items.

32: Expired food items on shelves

Another violation that health inspector notices quite often is the presence of out-of-date items on the shelves. Using out-of-date products presents a substantial health risk to customers.

Discard milk or bread that has passed its expiration date. Follow specification buying (standard purchase specification) and issue those items first that are nearing their expiration date.

33: Using newspaper and cardboard to pack and store food

Newspaper paper and cardboard are often seen being used to pack or store food. This is an unhealthy practice because the ink used in newspapers contains toxic chemicals that can easily leach into food. Cardboard cartons come into contact with surfaces that are dirty and when food is stored in cardboard boxes there is a risk of contamination.

34: Wiping freshly washed dishes with towels

Bacteria levels are highest in the kitchen. Wiping dishes with a towel is not allowed in restaurants. Towels get wet during wiping, leaving wet spots on the plates and stacking wet crockeries create conditions for pests to grow.

Also, avoid wiping dishes with a towel sitting in the kitchen for long. Any residue or bacteria on the towel could contaminate the freshly washed dishes. Air drying dishes is always a better option.

35: Dishwashing machine not operating at correct temperature

Monitoring the water temperatures of the dishwasher is as important as measuring the temperature of food items. Most often in restaurants, dishwashers are not set at recommended temperatures of 65-71°C, which could result in dishes not getting adequately sanitized.

Check the dishwasher’s temperature daily to verify that it is operating at the recommended temperature for effective sanitization.

36: Not using sanitizer in dishwashing machine

All surfaces that come in contact with food must be both cleaned and sanitized. Washing only removes visible dirt or soil from the dishes and does not eliminate or reduce microorganisms that cause food-borne illnesses.  It is essential to sanitize crockeries and cutleries after washing to eliminate or reduce pathogens to a safe level. If the restaurant uses a chemical dishwasher, make sure the dishes get sanitized with a food-grade sanitizer during the final rinse cycle.

37: Test strips not available to check sanitizer concentration

Too little sanitizer also affects sanitization. Check the sanitizer concentration in the final rinse with test strips to ensure that it is at the right concentration and strong enough to sanitize.

38: Employees not knowing correct dilution of sanitizing chemicals

The effectiveness of a sanitizer depends not only on its chemical composition but also on its application. Provide training to employees on how to dilute and use sanitizing chemicals properly.

Sanitizers will be less effective if the dilution instructions are not followed.  For maximum efficiency, use antibacterial sanitizer sprays containing at least 60% isopropyl alcohol to clean surfaces and sanitize hands.

39: Towel dispenser in handwashing sink found empty

No paper towel at the handwashing sink is a food safety violation. Make sure hand sinks are stocked with paper towels at all times. Other than wiping hands, Paper towels are used to turn off the faucets because doing so with bare hands can re-contaminate hands.

40: Dirty doors, handles and knobs

High-touch surfaces, such as kitchen doors, handles of door and cub boards, doorknobs, taps as well as refrigerator and microwave doors, are frequently discovered visibly dirty. These areas are home to harmful pathogens that can spread from objects to employee’s hands and contaminate food, regularly clean and disinfect surfaces high-touch surfaces to stop germs from spreading.

41: Food items stored in chemical containers

Never use chemical containers to store food items even though they are visibly clean. Chemical containers have traces of harmful chemicals that can leech onto food and contaminate it. Discard empty chemical containers and use only food-grade containers for storing food items.

42: Storing chemicals in food storage shelves

It is never a good idea to store chemicals close to food. Chemicals can get into the food if there is a spillage or leakage. To keep food safe, store chemicals safely away from food preparation, service and storage areas.

43: Dented cans found in storage shelves

Inspectors often find dented cans on store shelves. Dented cans indicate that bacteria are growing inside the can and releasing gases, causing the can to bulge. Dented cans must be thrown away, so avoid purchasing canned food items with dents in the first place.

44: Washing dishes in a dirty sink

In a restaurant kitchen, the cleanliness of the dishwashing sink is often neglected. Food particles from soaked plates and utensils are a breeding ground for food-borne disease pathogens.

Hence, it is essential to clean and sanitize all compartments of the sink before beginning the dishwashing to prevent contamination of utensils.

45: Holding glasses by the rim

Servers should never use bare hands to touch the surfaces of dining utensils that come into contact with food or beverages. Fingers or thumb come should never come in contact with the inside of the plate.

Hold the plate at the extreme edge of the rim, away from the food and carry dining utensils like spoons, forks, knives and cups by the waist or the handle. Instead of holding glasses by the rim, grab them by the base or the stem.

46: Food preparation sink used for handwashing

Employees are not allowed to wash their hands in food preparation sinks, according to the Food Code. Washing hands in the food preparation sink can contaminate food items. Wash hands only at handwashing sinks. Keeping that separation is essential to avoid food contamination.

47: No handwashing sign posted at the handwashing sink

Post a clearly visible handwashing sign or poster at all handwashing sinks including employee restrooms for easy identification and to remind employees of handwashing. This will promote hand hygiene and develop food safety focused behavior and practices in employees.

48: Chef not knowing the recommended minimum cooking temperature

Insufficient cooking is one of the leading causes of food poisoning. Chefs and managers must be knowledgeable about cooking temperatures and storage procedures. To kill food poisoning pathogens, it is essential to cook potentially hazardous food like meat, eggs, seafood and poultry thoroughly to a safe minimum temperature of 75 c or hotter. During cooking, the chef must regularly check the temperature of the dish using a clean and sanitized probing thermometer.

49: Documents and records not maintained

Restaurants may lose points if they do not have proper documentation. Documentation is an essential part of the inspection process because it shows food inspectors that the restaurant follows food safety practices and procedures and operational activities are consistently recorded.

Record and document temperature of hot and cold units regularly and also document corrective steps that were taken during temperature fluctuation in walk-in refrigerators.

Documents such as cleaning and sanitation reports, employee training records, water and food sampling reports, repairs and maintenance work orders, standard operating procedures and records of employee illnesses and injuries must be kept on file for at least two years and presented to the inspector upon request.

50: Employees not having food safety knowledge

Inspectors assess the food safety knowledge of employees during the inspection. They ask questions about time-temperature requirements for cooking, serving and storing food, thawing meat and handwashing procedures.

They want to know what employees do with food when food falls into the danger zone, for how long cooked food is held and at what temperature, and how employees ensure that food is not kept longer than the recommended time. Other questions often asked are how frequently garbage is cleared and what they do with leftover food or food that is not served immediately after cooking.

Typically, Restaurants can expect inspections once a year, although high-risk food service establishments can expect three to four inspections. A typical restaurant inspection takes somewhere close to two hours. However, this varies depending on the size of the establishment. Food inspectors have legal powers.

If they discover violations that pose a significant public health danger, they may impose fines or order closure of the restaurant. It will only be allowed to reopen once the restaurant resolves all violations.

Some violations can be corrected right away during the inspection. Those violations that could not be corrected on the spot would result in a re-inspection of the restaurant. Critical violations are violations that can cause food contamination and foodborne illness. Noncritical violations present low risk and include issues related to the restaurant’s maintenance and cleanliness. Critical violations must be corrected within seventy-two hours and non-critical violations must be corrected within ninety days after the inspection, or as specified in the inspection report.

It is worth remembering that poor inspection scores can hurt a restaurant’s bottom line in the form of financial losses, lost customers and a negative brand image. It is relatively easy to score high grades in inspections. All that is needed is a proactive approach, i.e., planning and preparation. Restaurant operators need to be professional in managing food service business. They must meet food safety standards and follow food safety regulations.

Conducting a regular series of mock inspections will help in identifying food safety issues and preparing for inspection. Without regular mock inspections, restaurant owners may struggle to ensure that they are ready when the food inspector arrives. Set up a cross-functional food safety team and conduct mock inspections before the scheduled inspection to identify and correct areas where food safety is compromised.

As far as cleaning is concerned, a complete tour of the property is recommended once in a while to find grey areas that need thorough deep cleaning.

Restaurant operators are strongly encouraged to implement food safety management systems (FSMS) such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, to ensure the safety and quality of the food. A well-implemented FSMS will help restaurant operators identify, eliminate, or reduce food safety hazards and organize their food service processes and procedures. It also makes complying with food safety laws and passing restaurant inspections a lot easier.

Restaurant inspections are not to be terrified of. Both restaurant owners and food inspectors have the same goal in mind: to keep customers safe from foodborne illnesses and outbreaks. So, it is crucial to think of food inspectors as partners. Restaurant operators must collaborate with them to improve their food safety related behaviors and practices.

Health inspectors are so concerned about food safety that they wash their hands before beginning the inspection, but what about restaurant operators in food service? Isn’t it reasonable to expect restaurant owners to be concerned about food safety? We hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part article series.

We hope you enjoyed the series on common food safety violations and how to avoid them. This way, you’ll be able to achieve a 5-star hygiene rating and be ready for inspections at all times.

Dhruv Kishore Bole

Dhruv Kishore Bole is a hospitality and food safety specialist with qualifications in hotel management, food safety and quality management system.

He has extensive experience spanning over twelve years in operational and training roles. His expertise centers on hospitality operation, food and beverage services  and food safety. He has attended numerous workshops and conferences on customer service, leadership and food safety and quality and is certified by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in food safety competencies.

He is currently offering services in the capacity of Faculty, Food & Beverage service at State Institute of Hotel Management, Siddhpur, India. He is an empanelled trainer with Hero Mindmine and IL&FS Skills. He is a member of Quality Council of India and an instructor and proctor with ServSafe for India region.

  • Atosa USA
  • Easy Ice
  • AyrKing Mixstir
  • Simplot Frozen Avocado
  • BelGioioso Burrata
  • Imperial Dade
  • DAVO by Avalara
  • T&S Brass Eversteel Pre-Rinse Units
  • Day & Nite
  • Cuisine Solutions
  • McKee Foodservice Sunbelt Bakery
  • RAK Porcelain
  • AHF National Conference 2024
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