How safe is your favorite restaurant? King County cooking up new rating system

Aug 18, 2014, 5:46 AM | Updated: 7:32 am

When you go to a restaurant in Los Angeles and a number of other cities, you can see a letter grade of how they did on their most recent health inspection in their front window. Sarah Schacht says if King County had the same system, she wouldn’t have gotten so sick.

Schacht contracted E. coli after eating in an Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle’s Central District last year.

“I suffered extreme pain and my belly swelled to the size of a seven-to-eight month pregnant woman. I had internal bleeding and I’ve had a year-and-a-half of physical injury to deal with,” she says.

Adding insult to injury, Schaht later learned Ambassel Ethiopian restaurant had failed six health inspections since 2010.

“As a consumer, I had little access to that information that met a modern consumer standard.”

Public Health – Seattle & King County has maintained a comprehensive website with inspection results for all restaurants since 2001.

It includes detailed information on violations and a numeric scoring system that assigns points based on the severity of an infraction.

“We’ve tried to make as much information available as possible,” says Becky Elias, Manager of Food Protection for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “As a consumer, you could look up an individual restaurant and see the entirety of all of their inspections, and see how they’ve done. We did that because we wanted it to be as transparent as possible.”

But Schaht says the system is antiquated and overly complicated, making it difficult to quickly determine how a restaurant is actually doing.

She launched a petition on earlier this year calling for the county to mandate publicly posted restaurant inspection scores. She says other cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York have seen significant reductions in food-related illnesses since restaurants began posting A, B, C, or F grades in their front window.

“We saw, in Toronto, a 30 percent reduction of total food borne illnesses when they started a public scoring system for restaurants,” Schaht says.

“We have heard that message loud and clear that that’s something people are wanting,” Elias responds. “So we’re now actively engaging in the process.”

The health department has formed several committees made up of restaurants, health officials and others to come up with new policies for presenting food inspection results.

Elias says they’ll look at findings from other cities, and while they might not adopt a letter grade, they are committed to some public display that quickly informs customers how a restaurant fared.

“I think that we’re really excited about working towards something that meets the need of improving food safety, making something that is easier for people to understand, and also designing something that is equitable for the incredibly diverse array of food businesses that we have here in King County,” says Elias.

Along with public displays of results, the health department is also looking to integrate its data with Yelp and other popular food sites, at Schacht’s urging. Yelp began including health inspection reports in a number of cities last year.

But just knowing how a restaurant scores is only part of the equation. Schacht says a more thorough and transparent system will also encourage restaurants to remain consistently clean and safe.

“Being able to see a C or D rating on the restaurant would give the restaurant more incentive, because you want to keep people coming through the door. (Customers) find other options if they don’t feel your place is safe to eat at.”

Elias and Schacht agree public input is critical as well. The health department is actively seeking feedback on its website and inviting people to attend public meetings in the coming months.

The health department plans to begin testing new systems early next year, with full implementation later in 2015.

It would be more than two years after Schaht got sick. But considering how long it takes to pass any new government regulations, she says she’s pleased with the process. “It’s about as good as we can do.”

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How safe is your favorite restaurant? King County cooking up new rating system