Boston, don’t hide restaurants’ dirty secrets

An editorial in the Boston Globe states that last year, nearly half of the restaurants in Boston were cited by city inspectors for two of the most serious health and sanitary code violations on the books, and about 200 were written up for 10 or more violations, according to a Globe analysis of municipal records published this week. But until reporter Matt Rocheleau’s story, most of these establishments’ customers had no idea they were at risk of becoming ill., the information had been available to the public prior to the Globe report. The city publishes an online spreadsheet listing restaurant inspection results, which can be accessed through something called the Mayor’s Food Court, a web portal created in 2001. The site — which is ancient in tech years — also allows users to a search for inspection data by restaurant name. Never heard of it? You have plenty of company.

Lauren Lockwood, the city’s first chief digital officer, knows that’s a problem. “We’re focusing on the distinction of making things available versus accessible,” she said. “The city now makes a truly tremendous amount of information available online; the problem is that the access is user unfriendly.”

A better designed and promoted online database to replace the Mayor’s Food Court would be welcome. But given the serious public health considerations, technology that doesn’t necessarily require the intervention of an IT department should also be used to spread word about sanitary code violations. For instance, the city could send out a weekly e-mail bulletin that lists the latest citations.

Boston should also follow the lead of New York and San Francisco, which require restaurants to post a health code compliance grade where everyone can see. Under New York’s letter grade system, which was enacted in 2010, violations are translated into points. Fewer points mean a higher grade.

I agree.

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.


barf.o.meter_.dec_.12-216x300-216x300The 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.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2011. Designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Journal of Food Protection 74(11): 1869-1874

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.