The dedicated army of restaurant inspectors who work to protect American consumers are very good at what they do. Yet we can all agree that they are not perfect. So is there anything that could be done on an institutional level to help ensure their inspections are more accurate? According to a recently-released study, there is: better scheduling.

A team of researchers out of Harvard Business School was interested in learning just what goes into a restaurant inspector’s assessment of a given establishment, so they looked at already compiled data covering more than 12,000 inspections conducted by 86 inspectors over several years. That analysis was followed by actually tagging along with inspectors and observing how they did their jobs.

To everyone’s surprise, the research revealed that the daily schedules of restaurant inspectors unduly affect how they do their jobs. The results are eye-opening, if nothing else.

What the Research Uncovered

The first portion of the study uncovered major inconsistencies between inspectors, the number of violations they issued, and how restaurants were graded based on their violations. For example, some restaurants are given better scores than they deserve due to inconsistent reporting.

The observed inconsistencies are that which prompted the researchers to begin tagging along with restaurant inspectors for observational purposes. Here is what their first-hand observations revealed:

  • Numbers of Violations – The average restaurant inspector cites fewer violations as the work day wears on. The most violations are recorded at the first restaurant inspected while the fewest are recorded at the last.
  • Overtime – When an inspector’s work day is busy enough to present the possibility of overtime, inspections done later in the day are done more quickly and less likely to result in cited violations.
  • Previous Inspections – The average restaurant inspection is influenced by the one before. In other words, if an inspector finds a lot of violations at a given establishment, he or she is likely to be more particular at the next restaurant as well.

Researchers concluded their study by suggesting that some simple changes could go a long way toward improving the accuracy and fairness of restaurant inspections. They recommended:

  • spreading inspections out across the entire week;
  • reducing or capping the number of inspections done in a single day;
  • scheduling the highest risk inspections earlier in the day; and
  • better training among inspectors to improve their consistency across the board.

It remains to be seen whether the research produces any tangible results among state and local agencies responsible for conducting food service inspections. In the meantime, there is plenty to be learned from this research by restaurant owners and managers.

What It Means to Restaurants

The research is a clear warning to restaurant owners and managers that food inspectors are not always consistent. Therefore, the impetus is on them to make sure they never give an inspector a reason to cite a violation. According to the Utah Restaurant Association, quality training for food service managers is the best antidote to inconsistent inspectors.

The association’s ServSafe program provides training, exams, and education materials that equip food service managers to maintain a continual state of compliance. That is just what they need to stay ahead of inspectors.

As for the inspectors themselves, their job is about more than just finding violations. They are also educators to some degree. Knowing that, a food service manager could become the educator by being trained well enough to pass inspection without a single violation, every time. That would have restaurant inspectors asking how. Wouldn’t that be an interesting turn of events?