The frightening lack of data on restaurant health code violations

Are our favorite restaurants safe? Sketchy? We don’t know, and that’s a problem.

The restaurant industry in the United States generates nearly $800 billion in sales each year, with more than a million restaurant locations and 14.7 million people employed by the industry. Restaurants are a vital part of our economy and society; the problem is, we don’t know how safe they are.

Restaurants are inspected by local health departments, following Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. When violations are found, the restaurant is given a time frame in which they are to be corrected. Depending on the severity of the violation, the restaurant may be shut down until the issue is fixed.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a clear picture of how clean and safe our restaurants are.

What are typical inspection scores? What level of risk is assessed? How many violations are typical? Are there certain types of restaurants that are more dangerous than others? No national data exists, at least from the past decade.

The most recent official publication looking at national restaurant inspectionscame from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2004. Seems ridiculous that we haven’t had a comprehensive report in the last 13 years, no? Actually, we haven’t truly had one in 17 years, because that report looked at restaurant scores from 1993–2000.

The NIH’s data in that report is promising: average inspection scores increased over that time period, and the most common violations were not deemed critical to food safety. However, a lot can happen over nearly two decades.

Typically, we only hear about health code violations when they’re at a national chain or causing serious illness, such as Chipotle’s outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella in 2015. There doesn’t have to be a major scandal for there to be problems, but we have no way of knowing. Should consumers not know how clean restaurants are, what the most common violations are, how long it takes violations to be fixed, or how many passes repeat offenders get?

Should consumers not know how clean restaurants are, what the most common violations are, how long it takes violations to be fixed, or how many passes repeat offenders get?

None of that information is easily accessible. The NIH’s 2004 report was labeled “volume 10.” If you Google the name of the report, followed by “volume 11,” no such report comes up. What you find instead is the Georgia Department of Public Health, an AARP announcement that Yelp will include inspection scores for some restaurants, and restaurant inspection scores for Louisville, Ky.

This problem has been identified and some companies are working to rectify the problem by creating databases and compiling information. However, many of these efforts have not become widely known or easily accessible, yet.

Surprisingly, the last national look at restaurant food safety came from NBC’s Dateline in 2003 and 2005. In 2003, the program looked at the top 10 biggest fast food restaurants in the country, pulling health inspection records from the previous 18 months on 100 random locations of each restaurant. The worst offenders were Burger King and Arby’s; somewhat surprisingly, Taco Bell did the best, with only 91 critical violations (though that still seems high to me).

The 2005 follow-up found that most restaurants had fewer violations than that of the previous study, but some improved more than others. McDonald’s, for example, had 10 fewer violations in the 2005 study, but went from second best to the worst. That’s because other restaurants had far lower numbers than they did in 2003; Jack in the Box went from 164 to 45, Taco Bell went from 91 to 62, and Wendy’s went from 206 to 84.

While this is all good, it doesn’t change the fact that the most recent comprehensive look at restaurants was over a decade ago and only looked at certain fast food establishments. However, many local governments do publish some information about health inspection reports.

Washington, D.C., for example, doesn’t have large summary reports looking at the District as a whole, but they do have an online portal where you can search for inspection reports by restaurant name, ward, or zip code. Only go down that rabbit hole if you have a strong stomach, however, because chances are your local favorites have some problems.

This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Rival.

Originally published at by Emily Milakovic on 10.27.17.
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CurrentEmily Milakovic