Global Food

Helping Patrons Choose Safe Restaurants

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are roughly 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States every year. While you may be a stickler for sanitizing countertops after preparing meat and washing your hands, it’s hard to know if the kitchens that prepared your takeout exercised the same precautions. 

Food inspections in the U.S. currently exist in a patchwork of standards. In many cases, diners have no way of knowing whether or not the restaurants they patronize are implementing good food safety practices.

“Almost all inspections are conducted by health departments that are run by local jurisdictions, so how inspections are done and disclosed varies even by city,” says Thuy Kim, MPH, a third-year PhD student in the University of Minnesota (UMN) School of Public Health’s (SPH) Division of Environmental Health Sciences. 

In a step toward making eating food prepared at restaurants safer, she and her team set out to determine which inspection methods led to the fewest outbreaks of foodborne illness. With funding and support from the MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures Research Fellowship program, Kim started by surveying nearly 800 restaurant inspection programs across the U.S. to get a picture of how inspections were conducted and whether or not their findings were disclosed to the public. The results were published in the Journal of Environmental Health.

She found that restaurant inspection programs that used a grading system had fewer foodborne illness outbreaks than those that did not assign grades. Programs that required disclosing inspection results to the public also had fewer outbreaks than those that did not. Among these, even fewer outbreaks occurred in restaurants that were required to post inspection grades on-site, rather than just online.

“Inspections have been going on forever, but now, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, safety has become an increasing priority to diners, even when they’re taking away food,” Kim says.

Kim plans to dedicate her career to improving the safety of food establishments, using this research as a roadmap for determining which inspection standards work best at stopping foodborne illness outbreaks, and using that information to create a standardized protocol for inspections across the country.

“Our findings could help inspection programs re-evaluate their practices while also maximizing the resources available to ensure the safety of food,” Kim says. 

This new research builds on a previous study conducted by Melanie Firestone, PhD, during her time as a Global Food Venture fellow. Firestone found that after New York City implemented a letter grade system in 2010, which required restaurants to post their inspection grades where guests could see them, salmonella outbreaks tied to restaurants in the city dropped by 5.3 percent. 

Kim’s research confirmed that this approach to inspections yields similar results across the country. 

“The customer has more information about whether or not they want to eat at that restaurant based on this indicator of safety, and the operator knows that the customer has that information. It is in effect changing behavior at that restaurant and making it a safer place to eat,” says Craig Hedberg, PhD, professor and interim division head of the SPH Division of Environmental Health Sciences.

Hedberg advised both Kim and Firestone and says the Global Food Ventures Fellowship is rooted in One Health and equips students with a well-rounded education that better prepares them to tackle real-world problems. 

“This program has been tremendously useful in building connections between people in different parts of the food system. This gives fellows a broader awareness of the whole system so when they go out into the field, they have a deeper understanding of how the pieces of the system fit together,” he says.