Posted letter grades provide a simple way to show diners if a restaurant is safe, but they are just a snapshot.
Soon after I moved to Florida, I noticed occasional news articles about restaurant inspections, sometimes including a list of which restaurants passed or failed in the past month, sometimes highlighting the worst failed inspections.
I wasn’t used to this. In California, where I lived before, every restaurant had a letter grade posted in the window that told me how well it had done on its last inspection. My wife really liked the letter grades and thinks everyone should be able to know at a glance if a restaurant has met the standards for cleanliness and safety. And that got me thinking, what is the best way to do this?
Florida’s restaurant inspections
In Florida, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspects every restaurant twice per year unannounced and will also do an inspection if it receives a complaint. Restaurants with a history of failing inspections are checked three times a year, and those restaurants where a customer has suffered a food-borne illness are checked four times a year. Inspection covers 53 items based on federal standards. All inspection results are available online at MyFloridaLicense.com, on the department’s mobile app for smart phones, as well as on various news sites.
But the state does not provide letter grades or scores for the inspections. Instead they are a pass/fail, with reinspections to ensure that problem areas are fixed.
New York City, Los Angeles and about 50 or 60 other jurisdictions, including states like South Carolina and Georgia, provide letter grades for restaurant inspections and require they be posted where visible to diners.
A key advantage of letter grades is they provide a quick and easy way for diners to know how well a restaurant did on its last inspection. Proponents argue that diners don’t want to have to do research before they go out; they want to easily know if a restaurant is safe or not. And posted letter grades provide an effective and simple way to do that — a lot of research shows that they improve the performance of restaurants. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found a 35% improvement in restaurant scores in New York after they put a letter grade system in place. A study of Los Angeles found that the number of restaurants getting an A grade went up from 58% to 83% after they were required to visibly post their grades. The incentives are going the right way.
Kevin Murphy, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, researched the effect of letter grades on restaurants in Los Angeles and New York. He says that restaurants resist posting letter grades at first, “then later, the results were not as bad as they thought, and restaurants that were performing well liked having it posted. People liked seeing it. Those that were not doing so well were forced to clean up their act.”
But Murphy says that although letter grades are an efficient way to provide inspection information to diners, they’re not a panacea.
The Department of Business and Professional Regulation makes clear on its website and in public statements that it does not think posted grades are necessary. It argued that its inspections and detailed reports available online are a much more effective way to ensure restaurant safety. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association also argues that letter grades provide a snapshot only at the time of inspection and that enforcement by state inspectors is a better way to ensure safety, and information available online is a more fair way for consumers to be fully informed.
The current system in Florida is predicated on a pass/fail system to ensure safety. If a restaurant is not closed by inspectors, that is by definition safe. Pass/fail does not mean doing the minimum; it means meeting the critical safety standards. A grading system implies that a restaurant with an A is safer than a restaurant with a B, while inspectors would say a restaurant is either safe or not and that the inspection results just point out where each of them might have fallen short and how they fixed it. Providing degrees of confidence in a restaurant with a letter grade is more subjective.
Research has found that letter grade systems have problems as well. Several studies have found that with letter grades inspectors tend to be more lenient. Research by Stanford University found grade inflation in restaurant inspections and inflexibility that did not distinguish well between matters of safety and matters of judgment about better cooking procedures.
Technology to the rescue?
My wife has wondered why more people don’t demand letter grades at restaurants. One part of the answer is technology filling that need. I mentioned above that there is a mobile app provided by state inspectors to easily check how restaurants have done on their inspections. But it goes way beyond that. The popular restaurant scoring app Yelp now provides health inspection score results for more than 350,000 of the restaurants it lists. I looked up a few of my favorite local spots on Yelp, and all of their scores were right there in the summary. HDScores is another mobile app that provides restaurant inspection results for a vast number of restaurants nationwide.
I checked out the inspection reports for a number of restaurants in the Sarasota area on the state website, and it is a lot more useful than a letter grade. You can see exactly what they failed on and what they did to fix it. More importantly, you can also see if they are repeatedly failing or only occasionally getting written up. To me, a track record of infractions is much more damaging than a one-time failure, which goes back to the criticism from the restaurant association that a letter grade represents a snapshot, not current or historical performance.
Why not both?
I am sympathetic to arguments on both sides of the letter grade question. The spread of information about restaurant inspections into mobile apps gives me a lot of confidence that more detailed information and useful snapshots are being made increasingly available by the market. Of course, not everyone is using mobile apps for such a purpose, but if that is where tech information is, those who want the information can go there to get it.
That gets me thinking, is there a good blend of the two? As the market provides more of this information, innovation that works well for restaurants and diners might emerge. Perhaps it's a more flexible system that includes a letter grade but also an effective way to update the grade when problems are fixed. The state already does reinspections, so grades could be updated afterward. Signs providing a restaurant grade could also prominently include where diners could get more information on inspection results.
Inspection criteria could include ones that count toward a grade and ones that are between the inspectors and the restaurants. This way, grades could reflect the more important criteria that directly addresses immediate concerns by diners, and not the sort of best practice stuff that inspectors use to ensure that restaurants are avoiding problems. For example, I’d prefer to see a grade based on whether restaurants are keeping cooked foods at the right temperatures more than one based on whether there is ice forming around the edges of the freezer door.
Something like that might square the circle and give us a system that takes advantage of existing inspections and the detailed information available online, but easy access and evaluation by diners.
Dr. Adrian Moore is the vice president of Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.