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The emoji is King County’s new food safety rating system

A server at a Seattle restaurant. (AP)
LISTEN: The emoji is King County's new food safety rating system

Restaurants are commonly required to post letter grades or other ratings which reflect how they’ve done on food safety inspections. King County is about to upgrade its own system — with an emoji.

After several years of seemingly interminable public meetings, planning and the typical Seattle process, Public Health King County has come up with its own emoji-based food safety system.

E. Coli outbreaks raise awareness of need for food safety ratings in Washington

There are no letter grades or stars. Instead, the text-message based form of communication will be displayed in restaurants. Customers will see a colored emoji in green or yellow for excellent, good and fair ratings, or a neutral face for “needs improvement.” An emoji is essentially a smiley face commonly used in text messages and other electronic communications. Though, it’s not always smiley, and expresses a range of emotions.

“As we looked at our options and we were partnering with the community to see what they wanted,” said Becky Elias, manager of the department’s food safety program. “We found that emojis really were the universal communication tool that everybody understood.”

She says the ratings reflect how a restaurant fares over a series of inspections.

The “excellent” emoji represents the top 50 percent of performing businesses within any given area. A “good” emoji represents the next 40 percent.

But Elias says even though a restaurant can get a yellow “needs improvement” rating, they still meet the minimum food safety standards.

“If a business is open for business, they have met the minimum standards from a food safety standpoint,” Elias said. “And beyond that we are conveying to the public with the ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ and the range of smiley faces how much better that business did beyond meeting the minimum standard.”

Beyond the emoji

That’s little comfort to food safety advocate Sarah Schacht who has been a leading voice in the ongoing effort to get King County to implement a restaurant rating system.

“I think it’s better than nothing,” she said. “But I think it could be improved.”

Schacht suffered serious illness and permanent injury after getting poisoned by e-coli at a Seattle restaurant that had repeatedly scored low, but was allowed to stay open.

“The smiley faces (emojis) don’t tell you over time how consistent they are — it’s just an average,” Schacht said. “Overall, they are a B restaurant, but you can’t see where they got an F.”

And Schacht says the new emoji system fails to provide more comprehensive data that would allow diners to make a more informed choice about where they eat. That’s especially critical for those at higher risk of suffering the effects of food borne illness, such as cancer patients with compromised immune systems.

“You can be walking into a restaurant that has a smiley face but maybe it only got a perfect score on re-inspection,” Schacht points out. “They could do poorly one time when they weren’t expecting an inspection, and do well when they were expecting an inspection.”

Elias disputes that sentiment, arguing the proposed emoji system actually paints a more accurate picture that’s easily understood. She says it fairly takes into account the interests of consumers and businesses alike.

“I’m feeling really positive about it,” Elias said. “Particularly because it’s bringing the notion of food safety to the forefront of our conversation. It’s a tool that is enabling us to talk to all members of the public about food safety, and to talk to our restaurants about it.”

But still, Schacht argues she’d feel a lot better with a lot more information. She’s critical of the health department’s failure to update its website and database, create an easily accessible app that displays restaurant inspection data quickly, and open its data to other websites like Yelp.

“It’s easy to do, they got what they need to do it,” Schacht said. “They just haven’t turned it on; in the format that is needed. The problem with the smiley face is it’s hard to translate as data, which makes it hard to post in places like Yelp and Google and other websites and apps.”

Elias maintains the emoji system is a huge step forward in the continuing effort to improve food safety.

The program will begin rolling out in selected parts of King County next month. As the health department takes feedback and works out the bugs, it will expand it. Elias says it should be in place across Seattle and the county by the end of the year.

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