Inspecting restaurants to ensure food safety is a well-known practice and responsibility of public health agencies. The inspections are meant to protect the public from foodborne illness that can occur due to keeping food at unsafe temperatures, unhygienic practices of employees, or cross-contamination and other potential environmental or structural hazards. A restaurant that doesn’t pass inspection may be subject to fines, face follow-up inspections, or if the violations are serious enough, have its license suspended until the problems are resolved.
Restaurant inspection reports often find their way to the pages of local newspapers, and are also available online in many localities and states. For example, local agencies such as Deschutes County, Oregon and Ashland-Boyd County, Kentucky and state agencies such as the Virginia Department of Health provide online restaurant inspection scores. The results are often searchable by restaurant name, zip code, or inspection score. Posting restaurant inspection scores online makes them available to anyone with access to the internet and now, Yelp, the popular online restaurant guide, is adding online public inspection scores to its restaurant reviews.
Besides expanding the availability of restaurant inspection results many health departments and local governments have implemented grading systems for restaurant inspections: For example, giving restaurants a letter grade of A, B, or C, and requiring restaurants to display their grade where customers can see it. These grades are meant to simplify inspection results for better understanding by consumers. Localities such as Louisville, Kentucky and states such as South Carolina have adopted the A, B, C grading system. In Louisville, the grading system now applies to food trucks.
Online inspection scores and grading systems provide consumers with information about the health risks and safety violations found during an inspection and may incentivize restaurants to maintain food safety and reduce the risk of illness to consumers. They may also increase consumer confidence in the inspection process and have been found to be important and useful by both consumers and restaurant owners.
The grading systems and online posting of inspection results are not without their critics who claim that the grading systems pose a financial burden for restaurant owners and provide only a snapshot of restaurant conditions, and that online inspection reports don’t provide consumers with enough information to make informed decisions about restaurant hygiene. Critics also question whether making inspection results available to the public helps reduce the incidence of foodborne illness.
Studies suggest increased food safety after the adoption of grading systems. In Los Angeles County, researchers revealed a 20 percent decrease in hospitalizations due to foodborne illnesses and in New York City, Salmonella cases decreased by 14 percent in the year after the localities implemented their grading system.
More research examining the connection between disclosures and grading systems and foodborne illness is needed to determine any direct public health impact. Even so, it is clear that the public wants inspection information and more localities are making the information available and requiring grades to be posted.
This post was developed by Andy Baker-White, J.D., M.P.H., associate director, at the Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region at the University if Michigan School of Public Health.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. This blog post does not represent the views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.