Interest in food safety has been on the rise, particularly in the wake of widely reported foodborne illness outbreaks. “Ask Us” is a monthly feature in which we answer questions and offer perspectives relevant to consumers and diners interested in food safety issues.
All restaurants in the U.S. must comply with numerous food safety regulations and undergo mandatory audits and inspections during which they are scored on their food safety practices. However, the specifics of these inspections can vary widely, and simplistic safety scores can obscure what’s really being communicated. Here’s what diners really need to know.
What do food safety scores mean?
It depends on where you are! In New York City, for example, restaurants can receive an “A” grade as long as they receive less than 13 points’ worth of violations. Failing to keep food at the right temperature is a 7-point violation. (Here’s the breakdown). In South Carolina, it works in the opposite direction: instead of scoring down like New York, inspectors score up: restaurants earn “A” grades by accumulating at least 88 points from good food safety and sanitation practices. (Here’s how SC’s food inspections work).
In other states and municipalities, scores can be derived in a variety of ways, and different “points” and “grades” can reflect diverse safety practices. These inspection systems can be unwieldy and complicated, and sometimes violations can result from misunderstandings and bureaucratic issues as well as genuine food safety problems; but they’re generally the best guide to eating out safely.
The only way to understand what food safety scores mean in your area is to look them up. Food Safety News has compiled a list of links to many food safety authorities (though several of the links are out of date or are temporarily down) throughout the U.S. – just choose your location and click to understand how inspections and scoring work where you live.
How should food safety scores change my choices?
First, always inquire about the scores. Unfortunately, newspaper and most online restaurant reviews rarely reference safety scores (which is crazy to us), and that puts the burden on consumers to educate themselves. You can usually find scores:
- On the restaurant premises (but you might have to ask where they’re hidden posted).
- On your area food inspector’s website (search for a phrase like “CITY restaurant food inspection scores”).
- On certain review aggregator websites; Yelp started posting food safety scores several years ago.
From there, choose your dining options carefully. Understand that anything under an “A” had at least one moderately to significantly serious food safety violation in their last inspection. You may still choose to dine at a “B” or worse restaurant (hey, it’s your health), but with food safety scores in hand, you can at least make an informed decision.