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Food-Safety Environmental Assessments

Environmental assessment identifies how agents that cause illness can be introduced to or transmitted by the retail food safety system. This page includes information about the environmental assessments conducted by environmental health specialists in four areas of retail food safety:

  • Conducting routine inspections at food establishments such as restaurants, delis, grocery stores, hospitals, schools, temporary food stands.
  • Reviewing a set of remodeling or new construction plans.
  • Developing a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan.
  • Conducting a foodborne illness outbreak investigation.

Routine Regulatory Inspections

Routine regulatory inspections are conducted with no specific information to suggest that any process is out of control. They involve a process that is guided by each establishment’s menu, potential hazards related to menu ingredients, and control measures to mitigate those hazards. Potential hazards and control measures are usually reflected in the laws and regulations of the local or state food-safety regulatory program.

These types of risk-based inspections identify avenues for the potential introduction and/or transmission of agents that cause illness.

Some inspections may not be risk-based and may involve only noting violations of regulations. These are not considered environmental assessments; they are simple surveys of conditions that violate regulatory requirements.

Plan Review/HACCP Plan Development

Environmental assessments for plan reviews and development of HACCP plans focus on future operations. Plan reviews assure that regulatory requirements are met and help identify potential food-safety or food-handling problems associated with construction or renovations.

Developing HACCP plans helps establishment managers identify potential food-safety risks and establish ways to eliminate or control those risks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site has information about the application of HACCP at retail establishments.

Both activities involve a process to anticipate environmental conditions that may introduce or transmit agents that could cause illness.

Foodborne Illness Outbreak Investigations

Environmental assessments conducted as part of a foodborne illness outbreak investigation focus on reconstructing the past. These assessments are very different from risk-based routine inspections. These assessments must be framed within the context of the information available about those who are sick and the food(s) that may have made them sick. Many regulatory violations may be present that would be relevant during a routine inspection but have nothing to do with the outbreak.

Information from other members of the outbreak investigation team, including epidemiologists and laboratory staff, is needed to help guide the assessment. This team approach helps environmental health specialists identify the factors that most likely contributed to the outbreak and the supporting environmental antecedents. Only by understanding both what happened (contributing factors) and why it happened (environmental antecedents) can effective interventions be implemented and future outbreak prevention measures developed.

FDA’s perspective on foodborne illness outbreak environmental assessments

Graphic showing the focus of the four types of environmental assessments.

The four types of environmental assessments focus on different points in time.


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