What Does a Failed Health Inspection Really Mean?

Next time your favorite joint gets a citation, don't freak out.


Photo via istock.com/gilaxia

Within the past year, a number of local lunchtime favorites have been nailed with health code violations. Sweetgreen restaurants on Boylston and School Streets were temporarily shut down. There was evidence of listeria at a Whole Foods prep facility, which recently closed. Chipotle had issues with norovirus for months.

But are these violations cause for serious concern? It might seem logical to freak out when your usual lunch spot gets a writeup, but what do these violations really mean?

Recently, the way Boston displays health inspection results changed. In August, Mayor Marty Walsh proposed grading restaurants on a letter-based system. In November, the first letter grade was given to Stash’s Pizza in Dorchester. (It got an A, for the record.)

Deciding between an A and a B seems like it would be pretty easy to determine, but the food inspection business is a lot more complicated than the average eater might know. The new letter system reveals how well an eatery adheres to standards, and if it has been cited for non-critical, critical, or food-borne critical violations.

Non-critical could be a damaged ceiling tile or missing paper towels by the sink—violations, but ones that don’t seriously threaten public health. Critical could evidence of pests on the premises or not keeping cleaning cloths in a sanitizing solution, both of which could lead to food contamination or illness. Food-borne violations include keeping raw meat next to ready-to-eat food or having difficult-to-access hand-washing stations.

Most restaurants only need to be inspected once annually, but an establishment that’s held to higher standards—for example, a kitchen in a nursing home—may be inspected three times a year. In cases where restaurants have consistently failed to meet standards, the city may also perform more frequent check-ups.

“If we had to have administrative action for non-compliance—we went in for a hearing or we had to suspend the license—we would want to make sure we keep a closer eye on them until they can prove that they can do this without us being there three times a year,” Thomas McAdams, director of Boston’s Health Department, explains.

The City of Boston lists its food inspection reports online, so you can check how your favorite eatery measures up. But don’t be alarmed if you see violations. Most are not serious enough to warrant suspension or closure—and inspectors don’t just write up issues and leave, especially if there’s a critical problem.

“We don’t walk away from a violation,” says William Christopher, commissioner for the Inspectional Services Department, adding that some violations “can be fixed very quickly.”

At 9 a.m., for example, an eatery may receive a violation for leaving a bottle of hand sanitizer on a cutting board. By 11 a.m., though, that same issue may have been resolved simply by removing the sanitizer and replacing the cutting board.

“We try very hard to work with the restaurant establishment to make it right,” Christopher says.

During the Chipotle norovirus incident, Christopher remembers, “we worked with them and were there every single day the establishment was closed to make sure we were monitoring the cleanliness process and make sure they were understanding the importance of everything they were doing and why they’re doing it.”

When there is a serious or unusual violation, such as cleaning utensils with toothpaste, inspectors take immediate action. “We will not let an establishment be open if we think it is unhealthy or unsafe,” Christopher says.

Even though restaurants are subject to yearly inspections, Christopher encourages citizens to say something using the 311 app or phone number if they see something. “The more people [who] give us information, the better we can serve the public,” Christopher says.

And next time you read about your go-to lunch spot getting a food violation, check what the damage is before you throw out your loyalty card.