Department of Health should utilize Yelp


Tess Woosley, Opinion Editor

Yelp helps consumers across the country find restaurants that fit their needs based on customer reviews and basic information, such as hours or location. In some cities, namely San Francisco, the website has gone a step further by including health inspection scores for eateries on their Yelp pages. These scores have been available on many city or county websites for years, but not having them on Yelp, which has 135 million visitors every month, is a missed opportunity.  This publicity would create a higher incentive for restaurant owners to stay up to code. Health departments across the country should aim to use Yelp and other social media to better public health.

Despite the fact that Yelp consulted with New York City officials when creating the format for inspection results, restaurants in the city do not yet have these scores on their Yelp pages. However, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is successfully using the site to identify unreported foodborne illnesses by contacting Yelp users who post reviews complaining of food poisoning or stomach problems. This identification can help shut down dangerous restaurants and minimize costs associated with public health investigations.

All cases of food poisoning are required to be reported in New York City, but this rarely happens. Many people are unaware of reporting methods or elect to wait out minor foodborne illnesses instead of going to the doctor. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are 48 million foodborne illnesses nationally each year, yet less than two percent of these cases are directly reported to the agency. Consumers have turned to Yelp to report their illnesses, and it is up to health departments to adapt.

Even though Yelp’s system of reporting is not without problems, New York City should still proactively include health inspection scores. San Francisco formerly did not list the date of inspection for the health scores, which understandably angered some restaurant owners who had worked to correct the violations. But Yelp quickly adapted  by posting the date along with the score. In contrast, city governments are large bureaucracies that cannot update or change websites as quickly.

San Francisco also has a more intuitive rating system than most cities where restaurants are given a score out of 100 that mimics school assignment grades. Under New York’s system,, a perfect score is zero and an “A” rating corresponds to a score of zero to thirteen with varying numbers of points added for different violations. This is far less descriptive for the average consumer. A universal ratings system across the country, in addition to its other benefits, would make posting scores on Yelp fairer and minimize confusion. Health departments should recognize that private companies have provided a more efficient platform for both distributing information and reporting illnesses caused by restaurants. Working with these services will save them both time and money.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 7 print edition. Email Tess Woosley at [email protected]