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Here’s a trivia question for you: what is the one state in the United States that doesn’t make their restaurant inspection results available online? As the clickbait cliche goes, the answer may surprise you. It isn’t Wyoming. It isn’t Hawaii. It is Minnesota restaurant inspections we want to see!
You can find restaurant health inspection data online in almost every state. In many, more than 90% of the population is serviced by health departments which make their data available online. Some states have their entire populations covered. Some states, like West Virginia and Wyoming, have online restaurant inspection data available to only about a third of their population.
One state, however, doesn’t make any of their restaurant inspection data available online at all. It’s cold, beautiful, and riven with thousands of lakes. That’s right: when it comes to restaurant inspections, Minnesota is stuck firmly in the pre-internet age. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune got wise to this and published an article highlighting the phenomenon earlier this month.
No! We love Minnesota’s Health Department! They are one of the best of them out there!
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. There are state and local agencies in Minnesota that do inspections, of course. They were slated to start posting their results online in back in 2016. Unfortunately, the change never came to be: an overhaul of the IT system delayed the effort to get the health results online. The IT overhaul is now finished, and the effort to get the results online has supposedly restarted, but according to the Star-Tribune, officials don’t known when it will be finished. **Fingers crossed soon!**
According to the article, it’s not just the state of Minnesota that’s been dragging their feet. There’s a similar phenomenon going on with local health departments in the state; although they’re visiting restaurants, inspecting them, and citing them for health safety violations, they aren’t (can’t) posting that data online.
The officials at the health department who spoke to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune cited two major arguments against posting health inspection data online. The first argument: posting health data online doesn’t actually make anyone much safer, and ergo is a waste of money.
From the article: “Angie Cyr, the Health Department’s acting program manager for food, pools and lodging services, said she has not seen evidence that posting reports improves food safety or reduces foodborne illnesses.“ It goes on: “We do recognize that there’s a desire by some people to be able to go online and see those inspection reports,” Cyr said. “But we don’t think it’s the wisest use of our public health dollars to do that.”
That may not be entirely true. As one researcher who spoke to the Star-Tribune pointed out, there’s a growing body of evidence that food safety grades actually do improve the safety of restaurants. One paper the researcher co-authored found a relationship between New York posting letter grades for different restaurants and a decreased incidence of salmonella infections. That’s a promising sign, and one that cuts against the argument that posting food safety reports doesn’t do much to improve food safety.
The other argument against making food safety inspection data available online is a bit more subtle, but it goes something like this: making food inspection data only provides people with a little bit of information, and it often strips that information of important context that’s needed to understand it. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, after all, and some of the people that the Star-Tribune spoke to said that they were sensitive to those dangers.
From the article: ““Does that tell a customer who looks at a report from eight months ago what the sanitary condition of the restaurant is? No, unless they’re perpetually in tough shape,” said Zack Hansen, Ramsey County’s environmental health director. “My focus is making sure we get out there and we get our job done and bring establishments into compliance.”
In other words: a restaurant might get a bad grade on a food safety inspection, correct it, and then have to live with the shadow of that inspection hanging over them. It’s bad publicity, and it doesn’t give you an idea of the steps the restaurant has taken to correct the violations listed. It’s like a negative Yelp review: it hangs around like a bad stench, impervious to contrary evidence, and can give people the wrong idea about what a given business is up to.
This writer isn’t entirely sure that they buy that argument. What’s to stop Minnesota from posting restaurant inspections online and also providing data to contextualize those reports? Why not post the inspection reports, as other cities and states do, and also provide information about whether the establishment in question has acted on those reports? Why not give them an overall rating that reflects their performance over time, or whether they’ve taken corrective actions?
It’s possible. I suppose that we should note that posting reports online is a relatively new thing; some states, like Arkansas and Maine, have only come online in the past couple of years. That makes sense – a little while ago, after all, not very many of us were online at all. It’s taken time, effort, and investment of resources to get everything up to speed.
Times are changing, however. And Make Food Safe supports open data that’s transparently presented and readily available (with the appropriate context, of course). To that end, we hope that Minnesota gets themselves online soon. If it helps their citizens make decisions about where they can safely eat, and if they’re able to avoid foodborne illness because of it, it’s worth it
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)