(TNS) — Restaurant health inspection reports are public record. And they're not all that difficult to find.
But this week, review website Yelp brought those reports to the forefront. The company has posted inspection records from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation on the Yelp pages for about 40,000 Florida eateries, alongside the hours, menu and price range.
"The data is sitting in .gov servers that few people ever visit," said Luther Lowe, vice president of public policy for Yelp. "We believe that data should be out in the open for everyone to see it."
But with no notice from Yelp, Tampa Bay restaurant owners were caught flat-footed by the new feature. Many are worried that customers could misinterpret health violations that are relatively minor and common in the industry, which could cost them business.
"The truth is everyone gets dinged for something," said Jeff Mount, owner of Wright's Gourmet House in South Tampa. "You hope consumers are savvy enough to understand what is a serious problem and what is an everyday thing."
Wright's Yelp page, for instance, shows an Oct. 24 inspection citing him for dirty ceiling tiles and beat-up cutting boards — two violations frequently cited by health inspectors at local establishments.
"I run a clean place," Mount said.
Yelp first started posting restaurant health inspection scores in Los Angeles in 2013. Since then, it has expanded the feature into 16 markets across the country, including North Carolina, Kentucky and New York.
This is the first time Yelp has launched the feature in an entire state, essentially doubling the number of impacted restaurants in the country.
The ultimate goal, Lowe said, is to help prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses, a public health problem that impacts one in six Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By allowing consumers to easily access health inspection records when they are deciding what to eat for dinner, he said, restaurants will have extra incentive to focus on upholding food safety standards.
"We want to increase awareness about everybody's score and hopefully compel the industry to adhere to best practices," he said.
The owner of a San Antonio restaurant doesn't buy it, though.
"Yelp is a for-profit business and their business is selling ads and making money," said Curtis Beebe, owner of Local Public House and Provisions in San Antonio. "They could not give a patooty about public health and safety, I don't think."
His restaurant was one of a handful of area eateries that were shut down by health inspectors last week after it had more than 75 live roaches in the kitchen. But that information didn't appear on the restaurant's Yelp page on Wednesday, which instead showed an inspection from May. Lowe said "we don't anticipate there being a lag of more than a week" between when the health inspection information is posted and when it will appear on the restaurant's Yelp page.
Restaurant owners say the state's system works fine as is, however. When there is a serious violation, they are shut down until it is fixed.
"They let us reopen so obviously we're clean," said Beebe. "If we had a history of being shut down multiple times then yeah, I think it might raise a red flag. This was a one-time issue and it was corrected. To me it seems the system is working."
The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association also opposed the new feature:
"We encourage consumers to rely on inspection information sourced directly from the government agency that creates it, rather than third parties that may bias the information or worse have hidden commercial interests to promote," wrote FRLA president and CEO Carol Dover in an email.
In promoting the new feature to the media this week, Yelp highlighted AJ's Press, a breakfast and sandwich shop near Raymond James Stadium.
Of AJ's 158 Yelp customer reviews, only nine of them have four stars instead of five — a ranking competitors would kill for. It had 17 health violations from a September inspection, ranging from dirty hood filters to an improperly stored mop and food in the handwashing sink — all minor infractions.
"There's no majors on there right now," said owner Greg Lynn. "It doesn't bother me too much, we've always passed our health inspections."
There are currently 32 health inspectors charged with enforcing state sanitation and safety laws in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sumter counties, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The Department declined to comment for this story.
Yelp said bringing attention to health inspections may force the state to address potential problems in the system, including ensuring there are enough inspectors so that restaurants are evenly examined.
Still, there is potential for a disconnect between the inspections and public perception that could hurt business, said Eric Weinstein, the owner of Zudar's in Tampa.
"What might not be a big deal to a health inspector might sound like be a big deal to a consumer," he said.
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