Tennessee restaurants listed on Yelp will now display health scores

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When deciding where to dine out, a number of things come into play.

For the single person it might be choosing a place where friends are likely to be found. For parents it’s often a family-friendly restaurant with a children’s menu. As for the retired couple, it could be as simple as what eatery is nearest to home or maybe the latest restaurant being touted by their friends or colleagues.

Then again the decision may be made strictly from customer reviews and the star rating system found on Yelp, a crowd-sourcing website/app that rates restaurants through customer reviews.

What is rarely considered are the restaurant health scores. After all, who takes the time to search the State of Tennessee Department of Health’s website to check that before dining? A fair guess would be few to zero. That’s one reason why Yelp has decided to do it for you, beginning today for Tennessee restaurants.

Luther Lowe, vice president of public policy for Yelp, said in 2013 when the company began posting restaurant health scores in the San Francisco area, data showed a 13 percent reduction in food-borne illnesses compared with the year before.

“It not only raised the standard and practices within the industry, it also had positive health benefits and in all likelihood could have saved lives,” Lowe said.

To showcase Tennessee’s scores, Yelp has contracted with HD Scores, a business that will collect the data of more than 16,000 eateries and provide it to Yelp for display. The scores will be updated daily.

“We don’t decide where we are going to eat the same way that we did 20 years ago. Today we use apps and the internet. With this, the person stays in Yelp. To get more detailed violations, the score links to the statewide website,” Lowe said.

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The Knoxville News Sentinel, a USA TODAY NETWORK publication, gathers and posts restaurant health scores from Knox County Health Department on a weekly basis.

When a restaurant is found to have a priority violation, the eatery must be reinspected within 15 days and a new updated score is given. That process could cause the published score to not be the latest received by the restaurant.

Katharine Killen, community relations director for the Knox County Health Department, states that they enter the health scores electronically “at least weekly into the state’s database.”

Lowe said “as soon as it is put on the government server, we will have it on to Yelp within a week or less.”

Via an email, Elizabeth Hart, associate director for the Office of Communication & Media Relations for the Tennessee Department of Health, said an overnight update to the health score database is done daily.

“As always, inspections are a snapshot of the food establishment at the time. If anyone has a question about one specifically, they are encouraged to contact their local health department or the Tennessee Department of Health,” she wrote.

Scores have been appearing on Yelp pages in other states for some time. Lowe said as a rule the industry is not “thrilled” by the posting.

However, he said consumers have been thrilled with the information.

“Sometimes they will see a restaurant with a strong star rating but bad hygiene score. That’s a factor that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to consider when choosing a restaurant. It sends a strong message to the restaurant industry that if you don’t stay on top of your game and clean up your act — if you are one of the bad ones — then everyone will know that on your Yelp page. That’s an additional piece of pressure designed to really empower and protect the consumer,” Lowe said.