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Understanding Food Establishment Inspections

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Updated Wednesday, June 27, 2018

This document is intended to provide guidance and assistance to those who review the food safety inspections of food establishments in the District of Columbia. The supporting information is taken directly from Title 25 DC Food and Food Operations.

What are health inspection reports?

The District’s food inspection report online database contains a searchable range of inspections conducted by the Food Safety and Hygiene Inspection Services Division from 2007 through current. The selected inspection will appear in the form of a PDF or HTML document under a particular facility. The PDF files are inspections that have been downloaded into the system for historical purposes. The HTML report inspections are divided into two categories: The inspection was conducted after July 1, 2010, OR the inspection was inputted directly into the system from the paper formatted copy left with the establishment, starting from April 1, 2010. The HTML format is intended to provide the reader with a clearly visible understanding of the inspection conducted.

What is the purpose of an online database?

Beginning July 1, 2010, the Division began entering inspections from April 1, 2010, into the Digital Health Inspection System in order for the documents to be easily viewed online. All new inspections are reviewed and approved by the Program Manager prior to posting on the web. Inspections are made available online after a review by the program manager. This review can be as soon as 24 hours or as long as 7 days depending on the violations cited and other information contained in the report.  Complainant information is not available for public view by law. Some inspections are subject to a more extensive review and thus may not appear online for some time. In some cases, an inspection may be removed from the site and reposted at a later time.

What information is included in an inspection report?

The health inspection form contains the following information:

Establishment Information: The establishment name, address, phone number, Basic Business License (BBL) number and BBL license period, establishment type, type of inspection, e-mail address, and risk category will appear in the top left-hand portion of the inspection sheet.

The top right-hand portion of the inspection sheet will give a summary of critical and noncritical violations found during the inspection. The Corrected On Site (COS) portion indicates that the violation was corrected on site during the course of the inspection and thus does not count towards a possible reinspection. A violation that can not be corrected on site will result in a reinspection or correction notice. A 5-day reinspection is generated when a food establishment has a critical item that was not corrected on site during the initial inspection. A 45-day correction notice or reinspection is generated when a food establishment has a noncritical violation left uncorrected during the original inspection. The certified food protection manager (CFPM) on duty will appear under the summary once it has been entered into the DHD system. If not seen in this area, the CFPM will be entered into the inspector comments section located at the bottom of the sheet.

The food establishment’s trash contractor, pest control contractor and grease collections company will be listed in the area below the CFPM section.

What types of inspections do health inspectors conduct?

Inspection Type:

Routine: An unannounced periodic inspection conducted as a part of an ongoing regulatory scheme based on the establishment’s risk category.

Follow-up Inspection: This is an inspection for the specific purpose of re-inspecting items that were not in compliance at the time of the routine inspection. These may occur either 5-days or 1- days after the initial findings.

HACCP: This is an inspection where it is determined whether the critical limits of critical control points are being met. This inspection focuses on those portions of the regulations where violations could directly cause foodborne illness.

Complaint: This is an inspection conducted as a result of a complaint received by the health department. The specifics of the complaint will be evaluated and discussed with the person in charge.

Pre-Operational: This type of inspection ensures that a facility is “up to code” with respect to the placement of sinks, refrigeration and heating elements and other items found in a facility. The inspection is conducted prior to the facility opening for business. An extensive menu and plan review are also conducted prior to receiving approval to open.

License Renewal: This type of inspection is conducted in order for a food establishment to renew their basic business license.

Other: Other inspections would include training inspections and joint inspections with other agencies such as FDA and USDA.

What types of food establishments are inspected?

Establishment Type

Restaurant - This classification applies if you provide food services to patrons who order and are served while seated (i.e., waiter/waitress service) and pay after eating. This classification also applies if you provide these food services to patrons with any combination of other services such as carryout. The license fee for restaurants is based on the customer seating capacity of your facility. If the restaurant offers dancing and/or live entertainment, you require an additional Public Hall endorsement

Caterer - Any person or business that provides and prepares food, drink, or refreshments, with utensils to serve them, for use and consumption on premises other than where they’re prepared. Banquet halls with catering staff are included. Caterers serving alcoholic beverages must apply for ABC licenses.

Delicatessen - This applies to businesses where food, drink, or refreshments are cooked, prepared, and sold for consumption off the premises.

Food Products - This classification applies if you sell “prepackaged” food items prepared on a licensed premise including foods typically found in convenience stores, grocery stores, and gasoline station food marts such as cereals, snack foods, packaged sandwiches, and other similar items.

Grocery - Any food establishment which sells milk, milk products, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, canned goods, flour, sugar, vegetables, and other foods in their original state - not cooked or prepared.

School Cafeteria - This classification applies to public, private and charter school cafeterias located in the District of Columbia K -12. Meals are prepared on the premises and served to students.

Marine - Retail - Your principal sales are fish or seafood directly to consumers.

Marine - Wholesale - Your principal sales are fish or seafood.

Bakery - This classification applies if you sell retail baked goods, not for immediate consumption and not made on the premises.

Hotel - This classification applies if you have any building where not less 30 habitable rooms are reserved exclusively for transient guests, and where management or a concessionaire prepare meals in a kitchen on the premises -- to be eaten in a dining room that accommodates not less than 30 persons and that communicates with the lobby.

Ice Cream Manufacturer - This classification applies if you manufacture ice cream, frozen yogurts, frozen ices, sherbets, frozen tofu, or other frozen desserts (except bakery goods).

Commissioned Merchant - Any retailer selling prepackaged food goods.

Mobile Vending - Any person who operates a vending business that sells any product or substance (including beverages) intended for human consumption while occupying public space in that portion of a street or highway that is improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel.

How often are food establishments inspected, and what is the criterion that determines the frequency of inspections?

Risk Category Assignments

The frequency of inspections conducted depends on the risk category of any particular establishment. The risk category is largely determined by the function and scope of any particular food establishment. Unannounced routine inspections are conducted more frequently at higher risk facilities than lower risk facilities. A complaint will generate an inspection regardless of the assigned risk category.

The risk categories are as follows:

High-Risk # 5 – Extensive handling of raw ingredients. Food processing at the retail level, e.g., smoking and curing; reduced oxygen packaging for extended shelf life.

High-Risk # 4 - Extensive handling of raw ingredients. Preparation processes include the cooking, cooling and reheating of potentially hazardous foods. Food processes include advanced preparation for next day service. The category would include facilities whose primary population would include immunocompromised.

Moderate Risk # 3 – Extensive handling of raw ingredients. Preparation process includes the cooking, cooling, and reheating of potentially hazardous foods. A variety of processes require the hot and cold holding of potentially hazardous foods. Food processes include advanced preparation for next day service is limited to 2 or 3 menu items. Retail food operations include deli and seafood departments, establishments doing food processing at retail.

Moderate Risk # 2 – Limited menu (1 or 2 menu items) Pre-packaged raw ingredients are cooked or prepared to order. Retail food operations exclude deli or cooked/prepared and served immediately. Hot and cold holding of potentially hazardous foods is restricted to single-meal service. Preparation processes require cooking, cooling, and reheating are limited to 1 or 2 potentially hazardous foods.

Low-Risk # 1 – Primarily prepackaged non-potentially hazardous foods. Limited preparation of hot dogs and frankfurters. Mobile ice cream operations.
Note: An establishment’s risk level can be changed based on repeated deficiencies, a foodborne illness reported/confirmed and/or prior inspectional history.

What are the types of food establishment violations?

Types of Violations:

Imminent Health Hazards: Violations that are a significant threat or danger to health. These violations require immediate correction or immediate closure of the establishment. These violations can range from operating without hot water, severe temperature abuse of food, or severe vermin infestation to the failure of a certified food manager to be on duty during hours of operation.

Foodborne Illness Risk Factors: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified the most frequently reported contributing factors to foodborne illness. The five categories are: food from approved sources, inadequate cooking temperatures, improper holding temperatures, cross-contamination, and poor personal hygiene.

Good Retail Practices: Systems to control basic operational and sanitation condition within a food establishment. Some examples are pest control, equipment maintenance, plumbing, water, and physical facilities.

Priority Violations:  provision in the Food Code whose application contributes directly to the elimination, prevention or reduction to an acceptable level, of hazards associated with foodborne illness or injury when there is no other provision that more directly controls the hazard, as well as items with a quantifiable measure to show control of hazards such as cooking, reheating, cooling, and handwashing. Such items must be corrected within a time frame not to exceed 5 calendar days after the inspection.

Priority Foundation Violations: provisions in the Food Code where the application supports, facilitates or enables one (1) or more priority items and an item that requires the purposeful incorporation of specific actions, equipment or procedures by industry management to attain control of risk factors that contribute to foodborne illness or injury such as personnel training, infrastructure or necessary equipment, HACCP plans, documentation or recordkeeping, and labeling.   Such items must be corrected within a time frame not to exceed 5 calendar days after the inspection.

Core Violations: provisions in the Food Code that are not designated as a priority item or a priority foundation item; and that usually relates to general sanitation, operational controls, sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs), facilities or structures, equipment design, or general maintenance.   Such items must be corrected within a time frame not to exceed 14 calendar days after the inspection.

Field Notices: Field notices are generally issued to correct violations over time. An example is a construction notice for the installation of sinks and light fixtures. The notices may also consist of trash removal, extermination and grease pickup verification. The time frame generally ranges from 24 hours to 45 days.

Regulatory Foundation: DCMR Title 25, DC. Food and Food Operations. Adopted from the FDA Model Food Code, Effective June 6, 2003.

**Violations are now categorized as Priority, Priority Foundation and Core and are no longer classified as Critical or Non-Critical.  However, for full understanding in review past reports, this information remains: 

Critical Violations: Violations, if left uncorrected, are more likely than other violations to directly contribute to food contamination, illness, or environmental health hazard. Examples of critical violations include poor temperature control of food, improper cooking, cooling, refrigeration or reheating temperatures. Such items must be corrected within a time frame not to exceed 5 calendar days after the inspection.

Noncritical Violations: These types of violations are generally not directly related to the cause of foodborne illness, but if uncorrected, could impede the operation of the restaurant. The likelihood of foodborne illness in these cases is very low. Noncritical violations, if left uncorrected, could lead to critical violations. Examples of noncritical violations include a lack of facility cleanliness and maintenance or improper cleaning of equipment and utensils. Such items must be corrected within a time frame not to exceed 45 calendar days after the inspection.


Under what conditions will a food establishment get shut down?

The Department of Health, Food Safety & Hygiene Inspection Services Division closes food establishments under the following conditions:

Suspension of operating license for imminent health hazard: The business license is suspended and a directive is given to cease and desist using unsafe portions of the facility or the entire facility to ensure public health. The suspension remains in effect until the violation (s) are corrected. Grounds for closure due to imminent public health risks may include but are not limited to:

  • No hot water
  • Sewage backups or overflows
  • No utilities
  • Fire
  • Vermin infestation
  • Contaminated food
  • Foodborne illness outbreak
  • Inadequate refrigeration
  • Flood

Corrected on Site (COS)
The corrected on site provision is a new provision that allows an establishment to remedy areas that can be corrected within a reasonable time frame. An example of a corrected on site violation would be sweeping up trash from a corner of the facility or replenishing towels at a hand sink. An example of something that is not a COS violation would be the repair and/or replacement of a refrigerator. Only those violations that can not be corrected on site will be held against an establishment and counted towards their reinspection.

Non-compliance: A food establishment can be closed for not addressing and correcting problems identified in a previous inspection. The problems may have originally generated a 5- or 14-day notice. Failure to correct these items could result in a summary suspension or closure.

What is the difference between a 5-day notice (priority / priority foundation) and a 14-day notice (core)?

Types of Priority / Priority Foundation Violations – 5-day notices

Demonstration of Knowledge: A food protection manager and / or person in charge must demonstrate an acceptable level of understanding with respect to foodborne disease prevention and the requirements of the DC Food Code when an inspector poses questions throughout the inspection. This knowledge is generally obtained in food safety training certification courses.

Employee Health: A person in charge must know when to restrict or exclude an employee that demonstrates symptoms of foodborne illness. Some diseases are required to be reported to the health department.

Good Hygienic Practices: No tasting, smoking, eating or drinking are allowed in direct contact with food production or food preparation areas. Certain restrictions apply to the drinking of coffee and tea. No personal food should be stored in direct contact with food served to the customers.

Hands as a vehicle of contamination: Hands must be properly washed in between tasks. The correct procedure and length of time must be followed. Avoid bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.

Approved Sources: Food must come from approved sources from jurisdictions where regular inspections take place.

Protection from contamination: Contamination can result from employees, customers or other environmental sources. Sanitation of food contact surfaces and equipment as well as following correct warewashing procedures can ensure compliance. Controlling pests and discarding unsafe food can also prevent food contamination.

Potentially Hazardous Foods (PHF) Time and Temperature Control: Proper temperature control must be observed during cooking, cooling, reheating, thawing and hot/cold holding. In addition, proper date marking and labeling must be present. When time is used as a public health control, written procedures must exist and be followed.

Consumer Advisory: An establishment must provide notification for customers and patrons if they engage in the sale of raw or undercooked foods. The types of foods that would generate this type of notification would be sushi, steak tartar or “sunny side up” eggs. The notification is designed to inform customers of the increased risk of illness due to the consumption of these foods especially when prior medical conditions exist.

Highly susceptible populations: Those establishments that serve individuals that are immunocompromised or highly susceptible to foodborne illness must have certain procedures in place. Pasteurized liquid, frozen or dry eggs must be substituted for raw shell eggs. Prepackaged juice must contain a warning label. HACCP could be implemented.

Poisonous or Toxic Materials: Only approved chemical additives can be used. Chemicals used for cleaning or sale must be stored away from food products.
Conformance with a HACCP plan: When a HACCP plan is in place, monitoring will be conducted to ensure that the procedures are being followed and corrective actions are implemented when necessary.

Types of Core Violations – 14-day notices

Physical Facilities: The structural requirements of a building must be met under this violation. Items included would be proper lighting, closure of holes into the facility, floors, walls, ceilings and other issues associated with the structure itself.

Plumbing requirements: Backflow prevention and back siphonage issues are addressed under this violation. Leaky pipes or misplaced sinks may also be cited under this regulation.

Toilet facilities: An establishment must have adequate and appropriate toilet facilities for both sexes. Bathrooms must have self-closing doors and proper garbage disposal.

Refuse (trash/garbage) and extermination contracts: An establishment must supply the inspector with proof of trash pickup, extermination and grease collection (where necessary). This information can usually be deemed from invoices or contracts with the companies.

Note: All areas of a typical inspection are not covered under these guidelines. Keep in mind that any inspection report is a "snapshot" of the day and time of the inspection. On any given day, a food establishment could have fewer or more violations than noted in the report. An inspection conducted on any given day may not be representative of the overall, long-term cleanliness of an establishment. Also, at the time of the inspection violations are recorded but are often corrected on-the-spot prior to the inspector leaving the establishment.

What types of heating and cooling regulations must be followed by food establishments?

DC Food Code Specifications
Minimum Cooking Temperatures: Cooking foods to the proper temperature is one of the few ways to reduce the presence and growth of pathogens. Temperatures should be routinely checked to ensure that the requirements are being met.

Minimum Cooking Temperature Food / Description
165°F for 15 seconds Poultry live caught or field dressed, wild game, stuffed fish, meat, pork, pasta, poultry or ratites and stuffing containing fish, meat, poultry or ratites. Meat includes cattle, swine, goat, etc.
165°F with a 2-minute post cooking hold Microwave cooking for raw animal foods: covered, rotated or stirred throughout or midway through the cooking process, and held for 2 minutes covered.
155°F for 15 seconds Ratites, pooled raw eggs, injected meats; ground raw animal foods such as fish, meat, commercially raised and processed game animals, exotic animals, rabbits
145°F for 15 seconds Raw shell eggs prepared for immediate service
145°F surface temperature
(Color change indicating cooking)
Whole Muscle Intact Beef Steak
145°F for 3 minutes Whole roasts of beef, corned beef, pork or cured pork.

Hot holding Requirement
Hot foods shall be maintained at 135°F or above.

Cold Holding Requirement
Cold foods shall be maintained at 41°F or below.

Reheating For Hot Holding
Leftovers: 165°F
Commercially processed: 135°F within 2 hours

Cooling of Potentially Hazardous Foods
Hot foods: from 135°F to 70°F within 2 hours and from 70°F to 41°F within 4 hours. Ambient room temperatures: cooled to 41°F within 4 hours reconstituted foods, canned tuna.

Cold Receiving: law allowing shipping temperatures for certain food items above 41°F shall be cooled to 41°F within 4 hours. Shell eggs should be stored at 45° F. 

Should be performed in one of three ways:
a) Under refrigeration at 41°F or below.
b) As part of the uninterrupted cooking process. This includes microwave cooking.
c) Under running water 70°F or below.

Date Marking, Ready to Eat Foods, Potentially Hazardous Foods
Refrigerated ready to eat, potentially hazardous foods prepared on site AND commercially processed foods opened for service must have date marking if they will be consumed after 24 hours. The products can be held for up to 7 days if kept at 41°F or below. If foods are subsequently frozen, when food is thawed, the food should be:

  • Consumed within 24 hours


  • Marked with a new “consume by” date accounting for the time it was out before freezing.

Potentially hazardous foods with expired “consume by” dates shall be discarded immediately.

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