Phoenix, Maricopa County health inspections: How they work | Phoenix New Times

How do Phoenix restaurant inspections work?

From violations to letter grades, here's how the restaurant inspection system works in Phoenix.
Restaurant inspectors make sure restaurants are clean so customers don't have to worry.
Restaurant inspectors make sure restaurants are clean so customers don't have to worry. Nicoleta Ionescu/Getty

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Restaurant customers are familiar with seeing dining rooms and servers. But what goes on behind closed doors in the kitchen? At some Valley restaurants, inspections have turned up moldy fruit, backed-up sinks and dreaded cockroaches.

The most important factor at any eatery, above delicious food, good service or a nice atmosphere, is cleanliness. It's essential for the safety of diners and staff that kitchens are clean, produce is fresh and cleaning protocols are followed.

It's so essential, in fact, that it becomes an assumption. Whether in Yelp reviews or online, customers typically don't rank spots on cleanliness. That's because if a restaurant is noticeably dirty, something has gone seriously wrong.

That's where restaurant inspections come in. In order to remain open, a restaurant must keep clean. And routine inspections ensure that customers will never need to judge a restaurant's cleaning practices along with the taste of its food. Here's a breakdown of how the restaurant inspection process works at Valley eateries.

Who does restaurant inspections in Maricopa County?

Across metro Phoenix, and the entire 9,224 square miles of the county, restaurant inspections are conducted by the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department. In Maricopa County, there are 82 restaurant inspector positions. Currently, 72 are filled.

The department follows guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Inspectors grade restaurants based on compliance with the Maricopa County Environmental Health Code, which follows the FDA's 767-page Food Code from 2017.

What do Maricopa County health inspections include?

Inspectors visit restaurants unannounced to guarantee they are getting an honest glimpse into the day-to-day operations of each business. 

When inspectors visit restaurants, they have a long list of items to evaluate. They check pest control, food handling and preparation, sanitation, temperature control, food storage, employee hygiene, possible contamination, facility setup and compliance with legal regulations, such as visible no smoking signs, food safety certifications and previous health department ratings.

Inspectors file reports on each restaurant, noting any violations. The county then publishes those reports online. If the restaurant chooses to participate in the grading system, inspectors also will provide a letter grade.

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Restaurant inspectors check everything from pest control to fridge temperature and food certifications.
Kanawa Studio/Getty

What does the health inspection grading system mean?

You may have visited a local restaurant and noticed a framed "A" on the wall. This is a restaurant inspection grade. The grading system scores restaurants on Priority Items, which "are directly related to foodborne illness," and Priority Foundation Items, which "are the building blocks which control for priority items." For example, the first may be improper hand-washing, while the latter may be a lack of soap.

A grid system determines the grades. If a restaurant received zero Priority Violations but four Foundation Violations, it would get a "D." If it received two Foundation Violations and three Priority Violations, it would also receive a "D" grade.

The catch with the grading system is that it is entirely optional. Restaurants confident in their cleanliness may opt in so they can proudly display that green "A." But no restaurant is required to receive a grade.

However, that does not mean restaurants can opt out of inspections. Every restaurant must be inspected, and restaurants receive violations and the necessary instructions to fix them, with or without a letter grade.

When does Maricopa County inspect restaurants?

How frequently a restaurant is inspected depends on the type of kitchen it runs. For example, full-service kitchens that work with highly temperature-sensitive ingredients are inspected most frequently. Businesses that serve shelf-stable goods, such as bakeries and food banks, are inspected less frequently.

Restaurants and food businesses are categorized into five classes, with class five level establishments getting a visit from inspectors four times per year, and class one receiving an annual inspection.

Some of the class five establishments include places where those consuming the food are potentially higher risk, such as hospital and nursing home food service, along with full-service restaurants. In the middle, food trucks are inspected three times per year. Some of the least-inspected spots include convenience markets that only serve pre-packaged, shelf-stable goods and services like vending machines.

In 2023, county inspectors completed 56,211 food inspections, according to the department's annual report.

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Restaurants must immediately fix any Priority Violations that inspectors find. If they can't fix an issue on the spot, the restaurant will be reinspected within three days to make sure they comply.

What if a restaurant doesn’t pass a health inspection?

Depending on the level of safety violation, a restaurant that doesn't score a perfect "A" can experience a number of consequences, ranging from receiving a list of steps it must take to fix its violations to being immediately shut down by the county.

Restaurants are required at the time of the inspection to fix any Priority Violations they receive. If the violations can't be remedied on the spot, a return inspection is conducted within three days.

If there are "patterns of noncompliance," such as the same violations found on multiple inspections, the county may require additional interventions, including staff training.

In severe circumstances, if a restaurant fails its inspection, it can get shut down immediately. This could happen include if there are imminent health hazards, such as a lack of water, a sewage backup, a fire or the inability to maintain food at proper temperatures, according to the department. 

Who keeps restaurants safe between inspections?

Between inspections, it falls to restaurant staff to maintain safety and cleanliness standards. Maricopa County requires all restaurants to have at least one Certified Food Protection Manager on staff.

Also, all food-handling employees in Maricopa County must have a Food Handler's Certificate. These certificates are granted after staff members pass an exam administered by an American National Standards Institute-accredited provider.

What if you notice uncleanliness at a restaurant?

Customers can file a complaint with the Environmental Services Department if they see anything concerning at restaurants. Complaints can be made online or by phone.
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