Availability of Foodborne Illness Reporting Mechanisms for the Public on Local Health Department Web Sites

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Abstract

Context:

Foodborne illness is a serious and preventable public health problem, with high health and economic tolls in the United States. Local governments play an important role in food safety, with local health departments (LHDs) responsible for licensing and inspecting restaurants. Foodborne illness complaints from the public result in identification of more serious and critical food safety violations than regularly scheduled inspections; however, few people report foodborne illness. Availability of existing methods for the public to report foodborne illness to LHDs across the United States was examined.

Objective:

In 2016, data were collected and analyzed from a nationally representative stratified sample of 816 LHDs. Each LHD Web site was examined to determine whether the Web site included a way for constituents to report a suspected foodborne illness.

Results:

Just 27.6% of LHD Web sites included a way for constituents to report a suspected foodborne illness. LHDs with reporting mechanisms were serving significantly larger populations and had significantly more staff members, higher revenues, and higher expenditures. Health departments with reporting mechanisms were also significantly more likely to conduct environmental health surveillance activities, to regulate, inspect, and/or license food service establishments, and to be involved in food safety policy.

Conclusions:

Consumer reports of suspected foodborne illness help identify serious and critical food safety violations in food establishments; however, foodborne illness is vastly underreported by the US public. While more evidence is needed on how current systems are working, increasing the visibility and availability of Web-based reporting mechanisms through the following strategies is recommended: (1) test and modify search functions on LHD Web sites to ensure consumers find reporting mechanisms; (2) add a downloadable form as an option for reporting; (3) coordinate with state health departments to ensure clear instructions are available for reporting at both state and local levels; and (4) consider linking directly to state health department reporting mechanisms.

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