Are you following all the rules when it comes to food handling and safety in your restaurant? Are your employees? A bad health or safety inspection can cost you a pretty penny. And with sites like Yelp making it easy for customers to review your health-inspection status, you stand to lose more than just the dough to pay those fines. You could also lose current—and potential—customers.

The bottom line is that the responsibility for preventing foodborne illness is all yours, and ignorance of the law won't get you out of hot water should you end up with a bad inspection.

This article will walk you through some essential guidelines you should know by heart, but remember that each city and state has different food safety guidelines, so make sure that you are fully aware of all the laws that pertain to your location.

Establish a Food Safety Management System

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that you create a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) that will outline a plan for preventing foodborne illnesses, rather than just reacting to them when they break out.

If you haven't created a food safety management system, or you want to update yours, download the FDA’s “Managing Food Safety: A Manual for the Voluntary Use of HACCP Principles for Operators of Food Service and Retail Establishments” to walk you through the process. This guide provides basic information on foodborne illnesses, walks you through the basics of food preparation, provides info on systems to prevent contamination, offers procedures for receiving, cooking, reheating food and more. Plans are voluntary in most cases, but check with your regulatory authority to make sure that you aren't required to have one in place.

You can also reference the FDA Food Code, a model that provides the reasoning behind food safety laws, which, although not legislation, is used by more than 3,000 state and local entities to set codes in their jurisdictions.

Source Safe Food Items

Any ingredient used to cook foods in your restaurant must come from an approved, inspected facility. This means that the food manufacturing facilities are registered with the FDA and are certified for inspection.

Store Foods Properly

Maintain appropriate temperatures to prevent ingredients from spoiling. Dry goods should be stored in a cool, dry and ventillated room with the temperature ranging between 50°F and 70°F, preferably at the cooler end of the spectrum. Keep your refrigerator temperature at or below 40°F and your freezers at 0°F. You should have working thermometers in all three locations and check them regularly. Not only can spoiled food get you a code violation with the health department, but it's also expensive to lose a fridge or freezer full of rotten goods.

In addition, adopt the “first in, first out” rule to ensure that all foods are used in the order in which they are delivered, and pay close attention to all expiration dates. Finally, keep all food items in sealed and labeled containers with the date of when you received the items clearly visible. If you have the slightest doubt about an item, trash it.

Handle Food Wisely

There are many laws pertaining to the handling of food, and they vary from locality to locality. For example, California law requires chefs to wear gloves, as do many other health departments, when handling foods. Even if yours doesn't require all employees to wear gloves or use utensils, you should require everyone to wash their hands before and after handling food; this especially applies to employees after using the restroom, touching their faces, wiping up tables, counters and the like, as well as when handling any items that have come into contact with customers.

Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw beef, poultry, fish and their juices away from any other food. After you cut meat, disinfect all cutting boards, countertops, dishes and utensils with hot water and soap before using them again. In addition, cover all marinating meat before placing it in the fridge to ensure that juices don't leak onto other items. Note: Your employees must use good hygiene and be sickness-free to handle food. If employees show up to work dirty or sick, send them home.

Contact your state’s public health department for specific laws and guidelines for your restaurant.

Thaw Foods Correctly

You can thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator as long as meat juices don't drip onto other foods. Fridge thawing may take a while depending on the size of the item, so if you need a quicker thaw in order to cook the meat immediately, place items in a sealed bag and submerge them in 70°F or cooler water, then change the water every 30 minutes until the meat is fully defrosted. (Note: When thawing foods with water, do not allow thawed portions of raw meat to be above 41°F for more than four hours.) For the quickest thaw, defrost meat in the microwave and cook it as soon as it is thawed.

Cook to the Right Temperature

You must cook pork, lamb, beef and veal to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F before taking the meat off of the heat source. For ground meat, cook until the internal temperature reaches 160°F, and cook all poultry to an internal temperature of 165°F. Eggs should be around 145°F for immediate service and 160°F for those that will be held, and cooked vegetables should be around 135°F before serving.

Keep a Clean Space

This should be a no-brainer. Filthy kitchens attract all sorts of bugs and rodents. Check your local health codes to know which cleaners and sanitizers are approved to clean your restaurant, and learn how frequently you need to clean your equipment and your fridge. For example, some health departments enforce hood cleaning in kitchens to prevent fires.

If you’re compliant with these rules, you won't break a sweat when you receive a surprise visit from your local health inspector.