No, Iowa isn’t cutting back restaurant inspections.

Angela Dunker Iowa Restaurant Association

It’s the story, and corresponding tweet, that started a firestorm last week: “The state of Iowa is planning to dramatically scale back the routine inspection of restaurants and other food-service establishments by making only one onsite inspection every five years.” But is that accurate? “No, that is not accurate,” says Jessica Dunker, CEO of The Iowa Restaurant Association.

Let’s clear this up. Sound good?

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The article has since been lightly edited, but is still inaccurate as of today. Dunker explains “it’s the biggest non-story, story we’ve had in a while.” Simply put, the change impacts pre-packaged food establishments only, not restaurants. Pre-packed food establishments like your gas station, don’t actually make food.

The change in inspection frequency impacts what regulators consider to be low risk. Low-risk establishments serve pre-packed food, like those delicious peanut butter Ritz crackers you enjoy on a road trip. It’s important to point out this food is already inspected at the facility where it’s made.

The slight change was actually meant to increase restaurant and food safety in Iowa. This change allows the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals (DIA) to focus resources on categories regulators deem to be “higher risk.”

Obviously, the data never stops a collective Twitter freakout, however. Sadly, Dunker’s words were misrepresented and Iowa Restaurants already reeling from COVID lockdowns and higher costs, pay the price.

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Understanding Iowa food service risk categories

To prevent confusion here, it’s important to point out risk categories are defined for regulators. They’re not meant to label your favorite neighborhood hangout as “risky.” For example, a sushi restaurant is placed within the “high risk,” category by default, no matter how clean the facility is.

Understanding Iowa food service categories

Very-high-risk establishment such as a sushi restaurant with a specialized process for rice would see no impact under this rule change and will continue to be inspected every six months;

High-risk establishment with complex food preparation which is your typical full-service restaurant would see no impact under this rule change and will continue to be inspected at least annually; 

Medium-risk establishment provides quick-serve or cook-and-serve food (hamburger and fries made to order) which is inspected every 36-months, upon opening, and upon complaint;

Low risk establishment such as a convenience store that reheats pre-cooked food  would receive an inspection at least every five years, upon opening, and upon complaint; and

Very low risk establishment such as a vending machine or a retail store that sells prepackaged refrigerated and frozen foods would receive an inspection upon opening and complaints.

Iowa has Certified Food Protection Managers in every restaurant.

“Inspections are helpful, but what’s really keeping you safe is that there is a certified food protection manager in every restaurant in the state of Iowa. It’s required by law.” Dunker said. Most Iowans have no idea this is in place. Every table service restaurant in the state has a certified food protection manager on staff, and here’s the kicker, most have one per shift. Every Casey’s, for example, has a certified food protection manager.

The DIA and Iowa Restaurant Association are very thorough when it comes to food safety. “Last year alone, 8,000 people were certified in food protection management in the state of Iowa.” Dunker explained. The most common class was created by the National Restaurant Association, called ServeSafe. Iowa State University Extension also has food safety courses. These courses are strict.

Did you know your own kitchen likely wouldn’t pass inspection? If you don’t date all items in your fridge, or if you have ever stored meat above produce in your fridge, you’re in violation.

The bottom line here is this: is the state of Iowa cutting back on restaurant inspections? No. Not even close.

In the scenario of a violation at a restaurant, you couldn’t eat there even if you wanted to, because violations result in immediate shutdown. “If there’s any public health or public safety concern, they wouldn’t be allowed to be open.”

Consider Iowa restaurant owners would lose their entire business and livelihood if they had a food inspection concern. There is an 85% decrease in business if there is a public complaint about your food safety practice—that’s darn good incentive to keep things clean.

The tragic status of Iowa Restaurants

This article couldn’t have come at a worse time. Of those that survived the pandemic, now they’re dealing with a recession and record high costs of operation. “I think we should have great fear for our Iowa Restaurants,” Dunker stated.

For the first time in the history of the Iowa restaurant industry. Proprietors are dealing with a 15% cost of goods increase, and a 15% cost of labor increase at the same time. When you combine 8.5% inflation the results are nuts: the average Iowa restaurant only has 16 days of cash on hand.

The average Iowa restaurant only has 16 days of cash on hand.

“With a 5% net profit, which is what we consider to be good, the average—and I stress is this average—Iowa restaurant has 97$ a day in profit.” Dunker said. “Almost half of Iowa restaurants are still not operating at capacity and likely won’t be. And 90% aren’t operating with the workforce they need.”

It sounds confusing. Restaurants may appear to have people in them, but what you don’t see is a massive decrease in check size. Patrons are ordering water instead of a drink. They’re sharing an entree, skipping appetizers, and opting out of desert. (Why!?) They’re also ordering fewer cocktails. “The last time we saw this was in 2009, during the financial crisis.” Dunker said.

If you like your local restaurant though, there are ways you can help.

How to help your favorite Iowa Restaurant

Here are a few super simple ways to help your local Iowa restaurant:

  • Order Fries: Seriously! Fries are higher margin items that make restaurants more money. (And they’re delicious.)
  • Order drinks: Drinks give restaurants solid revenue streams. So go ahead and get a cocktail! Enjoy your night.
  • Stop using foods apps: Services like Door Dash, Uber Eats, and Postmates cut into restaurants profit. So, just call directly instead.
  • Use cash: Credit card fees take an additional cut from restaurants so cash is appreciated if available.
  • Tip wait staff: People were generous during COVID, but have scaled back their tips. So if you have the financial flexibility, be generous!

Jessica Dunker, CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association

To learn more about Jessica Dunker or the Iowa Restaurant Association check out their website here.

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