Letter-grade preferred: designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand

Systems to rate local restaurants are widely available – letter grade A, B, Cs in Los Angeles and New York, red-yellow-green in Toronto, smiley faces in Denmark. But which system do consumers and restaurant operators prefer?

In New Zealand, the letter-grade won.

Two years ago, New Zealand, a country of 4.4 million people, partnered with Kansas State University to try and figure out what disclosure system best served New Zealanders?

New research published in the Journal of Food Protection details the New Zealand consumer and foodservice operator preference for a national inspection disclosure system.

The research suggested a four-tiered letter grade card (A, B, C, or F) designed to represent a restaurant’s inspection result best met consumer and operator expectations. The study suggested cards placed at a premises’ principle entrance, at eye level, and unobscured by other signage or menus was key in attracting initial consumer attention.

Former graduate student Katie Filion and food safety professor Dr. Doug Powell designed the research in collaboration with the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (now part of the Ministry of Agriculture). Filion spent a year in New Zealand, designing and pre-testing different signs based on a comprehensive review of the literature (Filion and Powell, 2009), conducting 991 consumer intercept interviews, and 269 interviews with restaurant operators.

“No one has determined the most effective way to present inspection results to the public but a good system has several characteristics," Filion said. "It should have clear guidelines about what earns a good or bad grade and should communicate to diners the risk of eating at a particular restaurant."

“Such public displays of information may help bolster overall awareness of food safety amongst staff and the public,” said Powell. “People routinely talk about this stuff. We want to improve the systems that are out there.”

The authors acknowledge the New Zealand Food Safety Authority for providing the funding and opportunity to conduct this research and the New Zealand districts that participated in the research trial.

Designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand
Journal of Food Protection 74(11): 1869-1874
Katie Filion and Douglas Powell
Department of Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas 66506, USA
The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from contaminated food or water each year, and up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food service facilities. The aim of restaurant inspections is to reduce foodborne outbreaks and enhance consumer confidence in food service. Inspection disclosure systems have been developed as tools for consumers and incentives for food service operators. Disclosure systems are common in developed countries but are inconsistently used, possibly because previous research has not determined the best format for disclosing inspection results. This study was conducted to develop a consistent, compelling, and trusted inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Existing international and national disclosure systems were evaluated. Two cards, a letter grade (A, B, C, or F) and a gauge (speedometer style), were designed to represent a restaurant’s inspection result and were provided to 371 premises in six districts for 3 months. Operators (n = 269) and consumers (n = 991) were interviewed to determine which card design best communicated inspection results. Less than half of the consumers noticed cards before entering the premises; these data indicated that the letter attracted more initial attention (78%) than the gauge (45%). Fifty-eight percent (38) of the operators with the gauge preferred the letter; and 79% (47) of the operators with letter preferred the letter. Eighty-eight percent (133) of the consumers in gauge districts preferred the letter, and 72% (161) of those in letter districts preferring the letter. Based on these data, the letter method was recommended for a national disclosure system for New Zealand.

Related review:
Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2009. The use of restaurant inspection disclosure systems as a means of communicating food safety information. Journal of Foodservice 20: 287-297.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at foodservice establishments. Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing foodborne illness to foodservice. One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions.