While cities like Guelph, Ontario, are being dragged into the age of public disclosure, countries like Singapore have been training and using restaurant patrons as gumshoes for a decade to help public health types identify possible infractions through the use of cell phones (with nifty cameras).
The U.S. is slowly catching on, using Yelp to check health inspection scores for eateries in San Francisco, Louisville, Kentucky, and several other communities.
Local governments increasingly are turning to social media to alert the public to health violations and to nudge establishments into cleaning up their acts. A few cities are even mining users’ comments to track foodborne illnesses or predict which establishments are likely to have sanitation problems.
“For consumers, posting inspection information on Yelp is a good thing because they’re able to make better, informed decisions about where to eat,” said Michael Luca, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in the economics of online businesses. “It also holds restaurants more accountable about cleanliness.”
In recent years, dozens of city and county health departments have been posting restaurant inspection results on government websites to share with the public. Turning to Yelp or other social media, or using crowd-sourced information to increase public awareness, is the next logical step, some officials say.
“Yelp is a window into the restaurant. The restaurateurs don’t want a bad (health) score on Yelp. They’ll be more attentive about getting the restaurants cleaned up and safer,” said Rajiv Bhatia, former environmental health director for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
“It’s also valuable because it allows the public to see the workings of a government agency, and puts some pressure on the agency to do its job,” said Bhatia, a physician who is now a public health consultant.
The National Restaurant Association, the industry’s trade group, said that while it supports transparency and consumers’ access to information, it worries that because inspection standards differ from city to city, Yelp users might not be familiar with rating terminology and therefore could draw incorrect conclusions.
David Matthews, the association’s general counsel, also said the timing of postings is crucial because restaurants often correct findings and generate different ratings after a re-inspection.
Luther Lowe, Yelp’s director of public policy said putting health scores and inspection results in an accessible place where consumers already are searching for restaurant information makes a lot more sense than “relying on those clunky (health department) dot-gov websites.”