Log onto Yelp, and you'll find what all your neighbors have to say about your favorite restaurant. You'll find prices, locations, menus, photos, even parking tips.
And if you're in the right city, you'll also find the restaurant's health inspection score.
"What we're trying to do ... is reduce foodborne illness [by] warning consumers when they're in the middle of making a decision," Luther Lowe, Yelp's director of public policy, tells The Salt.
Now, we should note, it can be a bit tricky to spot those health inspection scores on Yelp. If you're looking at the Yelp website, the information is listed in a box alongside the venue's hours, menu and price range. On the smartphone app, you have to click the "More Info" button. But at least it's easier than reading through the reviews for tales of food poisoning or cockroach infestations, or tracking down the scores on a government website.
"We're obviously getting way more exposure to consumers than whatever clunky 'dot gov' that the city has set up," says Lowe.
So far, seven cities and counties in the U.S. have handed their health inspection data to Yelp for use in its listings. "We're eager to bring more cities online this year," says Lowe.
On a technical level, incorporating health inspection data can be tricky, because cities use different grading systems.
In San Francisco, for example, health inspections operate on a 0 to 100 point system, with 100 being the best. In New York City, on the other hand, a 0 indicates that a restaurant scored perfectly on the health inspection, and points are added for each offense, up to the worst score of 1600. The city then translates those scores into letter grades posted near an eatery's front door. That's made integrating New York's data more difficult.
San Francisco was the first city to get on board with Yelp's health inspection program. Initially, some restaurants were upset because Yelp would list health violations, but wouldn't post updates after the restaurants corrected them. Since health inspections only occur every six months or so, restaurants worried they would suffer from bearing the bad score until the next inspection. But now, Yelp shows the date of health inspections and the date that any violations are corrected.
"We had to straighten up a lot of things at first, but I think it's been working," says Richard Lee, acting director of environmental health in San Francisco's Department of Public Health. "It's really public information, and people can use it to make their decisions."
It's hard to tell yet how Yelp users are responding to the new addition, but Lowe points to a study that linked a 13 percent decrease in hospitalizations for foodborne illness to a 1998 program requiring restaurants in Los Angeles to publicly post their health inspection scores. He's hopeful that adding the scores to Yelp will have a similar impact.
"We don't make money off this," says Lowe. "It's more of a greater good thing."