Does Food Safety Make the Grade?

Posted by Erin Routson
(photo via Zimbio)

Louisiana has joined a small class of states and cities working to make restaurant-safety inspections more available to consumers. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) has launched a website, EatSafe, providing citizens with information on health violations at restaurants, bars, daycare centers, and residential facilities, as well as seasonal establishments like food carts and stands; the site also explains how to read an inspection report and know what it indicates. This new service should significantly improve access: citizens previously had to request copies of health-inspection reports from their local parish unit and then go to the parish office to view them.

While the website is a great resource for consumers before they get to an establishment, what can be done on the spot? In Los Angeles, and more recently, New York, the respective departments of public health require restaurants to prominently post sanitation letter grades in establishment windows. Grades of A, B, and C correspond with the number of  infractions identified by health inspectors — or, in the case of a “Grade Pending” poster, that a previous inspection grade has been appealed. The noticeable shortfall of  the system is that the sanitation issues that caused the grade remain ambiguous.

Even if the system is a little short on specifics, it has proven effective in Los Angeles in terms of improving restaurant sanitation. In a study conducted by two Stanford University economics researchers (PDF), they found  improvements in health inspections following the introduction of the system, particularly in low-income areas. The Stanford report concludes with a question of whether or not the federal government will ever require this type of ratings system nationally, as it seems to be a positive force for revamped sanitation and safety.

One final consideration around food-safety ratings is the question of how this service is responds to consumer need. While it doesn’t seem that any group of citizens has been clamoring for public sanitation ratings, once these systems are introduced, consumers (except, presumably, those who own restaurants!) seem to appreciate the “service” provided by the ratings. Are there opportunites for departments of health to expand transparency, perhaps by making the grade posters incorporate bar-code scannable data with additional sanitation specifics? And could health-grading systems better incorporate citizen feedback, reporting, or corrections?

In any case, health agencies may want to think beyond the letter-grade graphic and consider China’s potential grading plan: frowns versus smiley faces!