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K-State Today

November 4, 2011

Graded expectations: Research shows diners, operators prefer letter grade system for restaurant inspections

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Systems to rate local restaurants are widely available: letter grades A, B or C in Los Angeles and New York; the colors red, yellow or green in Toronto; smiley faces in Denmark. But which system do consumers and restaurant operators prefer?

Two years ago, New Zealand, a country of 4.4 million people, partnered with Kansas State University to find out what disclosure system best served that nation.

New research published in the Journal of Food Protection details the New Zealand consumer and food service operator preference for a national inspection disclosure system.

The research suggested a four-tiered letter grade card -- A, B, C or F -- designed to represent a restaurant's inspection result best met consumer and operator expectations. The study suggested cards placed at a premise's principal entrance, at eye level and unobscured by other signage or menus was key in attracting initial consumer attention.

Kansas State University's Katie Filion, a fall 2010 master's graduate in biomedical science, and Doug Powell, professor of food safety, designed the research in collaboration with the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, which is now part of the country's Ministry of Agriculture. Filion spent a year in New Zealand, designing and pre-testing different signs based on a comprehensive review of the literature, conducting 991 consumer intercept interviews and 269 interviews with restaurant operators.

"No one has determined the most effective way to present inspection results to the public, but a good system has several characteristics," Filion said. "It should have clear guidelines about what earns a good or bad grade and should communicate to diners the risk of eating at a particular restaurant."

"Such public displays of information may help bolster overall awareness of food safety amongst staff and the public," Powell said. "People routinely talk about this stuff. We want to improve the systems that are out there."

An abstract of the article is available at http://bit.ly/syrUHN.

According to Filion and Powell, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 30 people of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70 percent of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at food service establishments.

"Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing food-borne illness to food service," Powell said. "One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions."