By Jenni Bergal

Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — Many diners click onto the Yelp website to read reviews posted by other patrons before visiting a restaurant. Now prospective customers also can use 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.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 48 million people a year get sick from foodborne illnesses, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. About 60 percent of outbreaks come from restaurants, according to the CDC.

Restaurant inspections, which are usually conducted by city or county health departments, vary across the country in frequency and in how scores are computed and citations are handled. Most, however, include surprise inspections and cite restaurants for high-risk violations, such as a refrigerator’s temperature not being set at the proper level or staffers using the same cutting board to make salad and handle raw chicken.

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.

In 2005, San Francisco was one of the first cities to put its restaurant inspection information online. Eight years later, it was in the forefront once again, becoming the first city to sign on to the Yelp initiative to list health scores alongside diner reviews.

The city’s health department says the program is working well.

“It gives more information to the public about making decisions as far as where to go to eat,” said Richard Lee, the department’s acting director of environmental health. “Someone might not go to a restaurant based on the score they see on Yelp.”

Lee said that initially, only inspection scores and violations were posted on Yelp. But after getting complaints from local restaurants, he said the site also added the date the violation was corrected.

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.

“I could be inspected today and fail, and fix the problem tonight and have an inspector back out. But if Yelp only receives a weekly or monthly update, then I’ll be on the Yelp system for up to a month with a violation or a failure. That’s not an accurate reflection of the status of my restaurant,” Matthews said. “A fair system is crucial to restaurants, the majority of which are small businesses.”

Yelp collaborated with officials in San Francisco and New York to develop the open data tools that allow health departments to publish inspection information on the site or any other one that offers restaurant listings. They decided on a common format to report the data. Each city or county is responsible for making electronic information available in that format. Yelp’s software collects the data from health departments and puts it on its website.

SSven city or county health departments have joined the program, among them Los Angeles County, which includes the city of Los Angeles, and Wake County, North Carolina, which includes Raleigh. More are coming on board this year, according to Luther Lowe, Yelp’s director of public policy.

“The idea is to create a public-private partnership that’s a win-win-win,” Lowe said. “It empowers consumers with helpful information that’s germane to their dining decisions. It helps the cities by making their data more useful to their citizens. And it’s great for Yelp, because it makes the site even more useful.”

Lowe said Yelp has more than 135 million unique monthly visitors, and restaurant reviews are among the most common destinations.

Putting health scores and inspection results in an accessible place where consumers already are searching for restaurant information, he added, makes a lot more sense than “relying on those clunky (health department) dot-gov websites.”

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