Outbreak Rates and Restaurant Inspection Practices

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Learn how restaurant inspection practices are linked with foodborne outbreaks.

Two new studies add further strength to existing research on restaurant inspections and foodborne illness outbreaks. Both studies found that posting health department restaurant inspection scores at restaurants and using letter grades for restaurant inspection results are linked with fewer foodborne outbreaks and could lead to safer restaurants.

Restaurant outbreaks are common.

About 800 foodborne outbreaks are reported to CDC every year, and most of these happen in restaurants. Restaurant inspections are one of the main tools health departments have for improving restaurant food safety and preventing foodborne illness. We wanted to better understand the link between outbreaks and the way restaurant inspection results are communicated.

We looked at inspection practices and outbreaks.

This summary addresses findings from two studies that looked at how restaurant inspection practices relate to food safety outcomes. The researchers surveyed health departments about their inspection practices and then linked these data with the number of outbreaks and other food safety outcomes in those health departments’ jurisdictions.

Posting inspection scores in the restaurant is linked with fewer outbreaks.

Both studies found fewer foodborne outbreaks in communities where health departments

  • Required restaurants to post their inspection results at the restaurant (instead of just online or not at all)
  • Used letter grades in inspection results, although any type of grading method was linked with better food outcomes than not using grading in inspection results

Posting inspection scores in the restaurant is linked with other food safety measures, too.

In addition, one of the studies examined links between restaurant inspection practices and other food safety outcomes. That study found that when restaurants post inspection results at the restaurant (instead of just online or not at all), those communities have fewer

  • Cases of Salmonella, a type of bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps
  • Restaurant reinspections (because of poor inspection scores)
  • Foodborne illness complaints from the public

Complaint systems are important tools for restaurant food safety.

Communities with higher rates of foodborne illness complaints also had higher rates of outbreaks linked with restaurants, compared to communities with lower rates of complaints. This finding suggests that complaint systems are an important tool for identifying outbreaks.