It's not often that a successful Silicon Valley startup invites local health departments to enhance its core product ... a product so visible that it garners national attention and yet is entirely compatible with the environmental health industry's mission to promote safe food. This is exactly what Yelp, an online review forum that connects people with local businesses and services, has done.
Yelp, founded in 2004, maintains a worldwide inventory of businesses, including restaurants. Consumers use Yelp to find nearby businesses, confirm hours and location, read reviews and rankings, and post their own opinions. Ultimately, Yelp reviews can drive new business to a well-reviewed restaurant. Those reviews might also prompt customers to rethink their favorite Saturday night dining destination.
Though opinions about social media can differ, many forward-thinking health departments already use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others to get their messages out. Simply search Google for "health department YouTube" to get a sense of it. Utilizing Yelp to convey restaurant inspection results is a logical next step in this growing practice of using social media to inform the public.
Many already consider Yelp an ally in food safety. At its foundation, the popular Web site and mobile app already promote well-run restaurants. While the reviews are not, strictly speaking, oriented to food safety, customer observations in the dining area can correlate to practices behind kitchen doors.
According to a 2012 study by two Berkeley economists, Yelp scores can directly impact a restaurant's reservation rate (Ferenstein, 2012). This economic reality can prompt positive operational changes, including matters concerning some foodborne risk factors.
The LIVES Standard
In a 2013 media release, Yelp announced the LIVES standard (http://officialblog. yelp.com/2013/01/introducing-lives.html). LIVES stands for Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification and is a private/public initiative to integrate official inspection scores with the user-generated reviews at Yelp (Figure 1). The program's purpose and intent is to make health department inspection scores visible by augmenting the user-generated reviews and ratings with official inspection results and even violation details (Figure 2). "Yelp can generate Web traffic that is more than 150-fold over the numbers generated by local health department Web sites," explains Yelp Director of Public Policy Luther Lowe.
In addition, since the LIVES standard...