If you wanted to look up a King County restaurant’s inspection information, to see if the restaurant has any serious health code violations, it’s not super simple. For one, the website hasn’t been updated since 2002 and not all restaurants are searchable.
“There’s multiple score formats: Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, Red, Blue. There is Risk Category Three, Risk Category One. For someone who is just trying to take their family to lunch, that’s a lot of information to look at.”
Sarah Schacht knows. She looks up restaurants all the time.
“About a year ago I got E. Coli from a restaurant in Seattle that had over four stars on Yelp but had failed five out of six of its restaurant inspections. I had internal bleeding, intense stomach cramps that lasted for days, and then I had a lot of after effects from it.”
Sarah also got E. Coli during the big Jack in the Box outbreak 20 years ago. This time she says her medical bills totaled $60,000. She sued the Ethiopian restaurant that made her sick, but because restaurants in Washington state aren’t required to have liability insurance, the case was dropped.
“It wasn’t just me who got sick, it was at least three women who had confirmed cases of identical E. Coli confirmed by the state lab. One of them didn’t have health insurance and essentially we’re all out for what happened. There will be no ability to get back the money that we lost on health care expenses.”
But Sarah still wanted to do something. As an open government advisor and expert, Sarah reached out to King County, offering to help them find a better way to alert diners to a restaurant’s health inspection score. Several American cities use a system where the restaurant’s health and safety rating is posted on its front door.
“The popular one is the alphabetical rating system where restaurants that are getting between a 90 and 100% on the rating system, they don’t have to be perfect, are getting an A. Others who maybe don’t do so well are getting a B or a C rating. Those who are getting an A, they’re seeing a 5% revenue increase for their business. I think that’s a great market incentive and a reward for investing in safety.”
Sarah says the county ignored her for months, until she collected over 1500 signatures on Change.org
“So they started taking it seriously. So now they’re doing a report and review process about how they can improve. We don’t know if we’ll see the report publicly. But this seems like an easy thing to do so we’ll have to see what their level of commitment is.”
Mark Rowe is the manager of King County’s food protection and public health. He says they are currently considering many ideas since Sarah brought the issue to the forefront.
“One of the most challenging things with posting letter grades at the door stop is it really is a snapshot in time, it may not clearly depict the status of the restaurants at that point in time,” Mark said. “How would we be able to depict the true trend of food safety at that establishment over a period of time?”
Sarah says cities that use the labeling system have seen about 15-20 percent fewer foodborne illness hospitalizations. But until King County makes a change, she will continue to look up restaurants online before she eats at them.
“I was down in Pioneer Square and I was starving. There was one restaurant and I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds good. I’ll just check it.’ So I’m, like, pouring through King County’s clunky website on my phone and I find out they’ve had really bad scores. They haven’t had a good score since 2009. Then I found out the restaurant right next door had a series of perfect scores. So even though it wasn’t what I was looking to eat that day, I went there.”
Click here to sign Sarah’s petition