Bebeto Matthews / AP

New apps make it simpler for consumers and researchers to evaluate restaurant cleanliness.

Restaurants are responsible for about 60 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S., according to the most recent estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In many cases, contamination starts with sick workers handling food with their bare hands. While you can't control what happens in the kitchen, you can dine smarter by knowing a restaurant's inspection history before you go.

Fortunately, more and more cities across the U.S. are disclosing this information. Roughly half of all counties now publish the results of restaurant inspections online, covering some 60 percent of the population. As a result, it's never been easier to find out how the proverbial sausage is made, and whether that translates into an ick factor for you—just go to your local health department's website to look up a restaurant's violations, along with information on how inspections are scored.

The raw data, however, can be difficult for consumers to interpret, loaded with bureaucratic jargon and abstruse rules on food temperature, storage, and sanitization. It can be hard to tell what's "critical" and what isn't.

That's why cities such as New York and Los Angeles boil the information down to letter grades posted in restaurant windows. Research suggests that such open disclosure methods can have a positive impact on public health. A 2003 study showed that Los Angeles' restaurant grading system led to a 20 percent reduction in the number of foodborne illness hospitalizations. The authors observed that consumers were responsive to restaurant hygiene grades, forcing restaurants to clean up their acts.

But what if you're already out and about, looking for a place to dine on the fly?There are a number of apps for that, which source the original inspection data from local health departments. HDScores uses the data to assign restaurants percentage safety scores, based on a proprietary algorithm. What the Health operates with a similar model, but the app comes in different versions for different states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and more. Recently the location-based juggernaut Yelp also got in the game, partnering with eight US cities and counties to integrate numerical “health scores” into restaurant listings. All of these apps are free and designed with the immediate consumer in mind.

The problem is, one city, state, or county's restaurant safety protocol could look very different from another's—and so will the violations. (Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes a Food Code with national guidelines, it's up to individual health departments to implement and adapt it.) Smaller jurisdictions are also less likely to have robust open data apparatuses in place. These regional variations make it hard to draw comparisons of restaurant safety regulations.

This is where comes in. The new database, developed by professors Ginger Jin and Ben Bederson at the University of Maryland, aggregates retail food service inspection information from 87 jurisdictions, spanning 34 states and almost 900,000 establishments. But instead of normalizing that data into a single score, the website embraces the complexity of the jurisdictional differences, allowing users to search for the full reports—letter grades and everything else—in one place. "We want to keep as much detail as possible on the local side," Jin says, "and we also want to draw as much linkage as possible between the federal sample form and the local ones."

University of Maryland

Initially the researchers hoped to arrive at best practices for inspection disclosure, but over time, Jin says, they found that the data precluded such facile rankings. "We may think the idiosyncrasy across jurisdictions is noise in the data," she says, "but also they may exist for good reason." A coastal state like Florida, for example, is likely to have more (and more nuanced) inspection criteria for seafood than a landlocked state like Missouri. "At this moment we’re reluctant to say, 'This jurisdiction is definitely doing better than any other jurisdiction,'" says Jin.

The team has been working with the FDA and the CDC from the project's inception to develop ways to translate the research into public policy action. One study in the works focuses on a single jurisdiction, Maricopa County, Arizona, and investigates the impact of a voluntary disclosure policy for restaurant inspection scores. It could show whether forcing restaurants to post a letter grade, for instance, leads to better public health outcomes than leaving the decision up to the owners.

In the meantime, Jin expects the database will be useful, on a smaller scale, to restaurant operators and customers alike. National chains with outlets in many jurisdictions could use the website to find out whether individual restaurants are complying with food safety regulations. The interface can also simplify the search for inspection information in large metropolitan areas that encompass multiple jurisdictions; instead of visiting a different local health department website for each restaurant you want to visit, you can just head to and search the entire area.

The tool is still a little clunky on that score—when I looked for a few individual restaurants in New York and Washington, DC, I kept coming up empty—but it's still a significant step toward a nationwide study of food safety regulations.

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