One of the most promising regulatory currents consists of “targeted” disclosure: mandating simplified information disclosure at the time of decisionmaking to “nudge” parties along. Its poster child is restaurant sanitation grading. In principle, a simple posted letter grade (‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C’) empowers consumers and properly incentivizes restaurateurs to reduce risks for foodborne illness. Yet empirical evidence of the efficacy of restaurant grading is sparse.
This Article fills the void by studying over 700,000 health inspections of restaurants across ten jurisdictions, focusing on San Diego and New York. Despite grading’s great promise, we show that the regulatory design, implementation, and practice suffer from serious flaws: jurisdictions fudge more than nudge. In San Diego, grade inflation reigns. Nearly all restaurants receive ‘A’s. In New York, inspections exhibit little substantive consistency. A good score does not meaningfully predict cleanliness down the road. Unsurprisingly, New York’s implementation of letter grading in 2010 has not discernably reduced manifestations of foodborne illness. Perhaps worse, the system perversely shifts inspection resources away from higher health hazards to resolve grade disputes. These results have considerable implications, not only for food safety, but also for the institutional design of information disclosure.