A Public Health Informatics Solution to Improving Food Safety in Restaurants: Putting the Missing Piece in the Puzzle
Foodborne illnesses remain an important public health challenge in the United States causing an estimated 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths per year. Restaurants are frequent settings for foodborne illness transmission. Public health surveillance – the continual, systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of reports of health data to prevent and control illness – is a prerequisite for an effective food control system. While restaurant inspection data are routinely collected, these data are not regularly aggregated like traditional surveillance data. However, there is evidence that these data are a valuable tool for understanding foodborne illness outbreaks and threats to food safety. This article discusses the challenges and opportunities for incorporating routine restaurant inspection data as a surveillance tool for monitoring and improving foodborne illness prevention activities. The three main challenges are: 1) the need for a national framework; 2) lack of data standards and interoperability; and 3) limited access to restaurant inspection data. Tapping into the power of public health informatics represents an opportunity to address these challenges. Overall, improving restaurant inspection information systems and making restaurant inspection data available to support decision-making represents an opportunity to practice smarter food safety.