Consumer concerns have shifted from the availability of food to food quality, including attributes such as taste, nutritional content, and safety (Antle, 1999). According to a 2012 Food and Health Survey, nearly all adults in the U.S. say they have thought about the healthfulness of their diet, physical activity, and food safety--and more than 8 out of 10 (85%) admit to giving some thought to the safety of their foods and beverages over the past year (International Food Information Council Foundation, 2012). Restaurant inspection reports can be an important source of food safety information to consumers. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended a change from an inspection format that uses the words critical or noncritical to describe violations to a format that includes three categories of importance: priority, priority foundation, and core violations (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], 2013). Consumers have an interest in restaurant sanitation (Jones & Grimm, 2008); therefore, it is important to see how this inspection format change affects consumer understanding of restaurant violations.
The food industry and government share the responsibility of providing safe food to consumers (HHS, 2013). In addition, according to the Freedom of Information Act, consumers have the right to access information from the federal government, including inspection reports (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2016). The posting of inspection scores in restaurants or their availability on the Internet or in newspapers is an important step in communicating the results to consumers. In fact, Worsfold (2006) found that almost all respondents (90%) said the public had the right to know the result of a restaurant inspection. This finding is important because the reporting of restaurant inspections in the media not only provides information to consumers, but in turn impacts the inspection process itself through the restaurant's desire to keep their scores high and protect their reputation (Almanza, Ismail, & Mill, 2002). Effective and clear communication of the meaning of restaurant inspection results would therefore appear to be essential for everyone.
As interest in food safety grows, the restaurant inspection reports are becoming more important for consumers who are interested in using them to make dining choices. Knight and coauthors (2007) found that consumers who thought that a restaurant had received unsatisfactory inspection scores were less likely to choose that restaurant. Choi and coauthors (2011) stressed that health inspection scores are a reflection of restaurant cleanliness and presumably represent the "safety" of eating at the restaurant. Inspection scores may also affect restaurants' financial performance because of the potential impact on consumers' dining choices. Jin and Leslie (2003) found increased consumer confidence in making restaurant choices and increased revenue for businesses with high inspection scores.
Several studies have been conducted on restaurant inspections. Choi and coauthors (2013) found that inspection format had a significant effect on message strength, as well as consumer responses. They also showed that narrative messages elicited the strongest effect on perceived message strength and consumer responses. Dunlop and coauthors (2010) found similar benefits for the narrative format. Other studies have suggested that information presented in a numeric or letter grade format is simpler and easier to comprehend (Artz & Tybout, 1999; Bell, 1984; Dundes & Rajapaksa, 2001). It is possible that the newest recommended format with three categories of violations (priority, priority foundation, and core) may offer more in-depth information than the most currently used method, which offers narrative information about two categories of violations (critical and noncritical). On the other hand, consumers might prefer a simpler format--as some previous studies have suggested.
Therefore, the purpose of this study was to assess consumer perception of the newest recommended inspection format. This study was not experimental, however, so the following research questions guided the analyses:
How would consumers like information to be made available and how much explanation of violations should be given (simple score, description)?
Will the newest format be more confusing or easier to understand?
What are consumer perceptions of risk associated with the different violations under the different inspection formats?
Using a review of the literature, this study developed a self-administered questionnaire for consumers. The questionnaire began...