E. coli victim pushes to improve King County restaurant reports

Aug 11, 2013, 5:13 PM | Updated: Aug 12, 2013, 9:56 am
Each year, 1 in 5 Americans gets food poisoning. A woman who ate contaminated Jack in the Box food 20 years ago, and suffered from E. coli poisoning again this year, is petitioning King County to update its system for reporting restaurant inspections. (Photo courtesy WoodleyWonderworks)
(Photo courtesy WoodleyWonderworks)

After being infected with E.coli for the second time in her life, a Seattle woman pushes for changes in King County restaurant inspection reports.

If you’re a newcomer to the Northwest, you might not remember the E. coli crisis of 1993.

Four children died and 600 others were reported sick after eating at Jack in the Box restaurants. The fast food chain served undercooked patties contaminated with fecal material containing the bacteria.

“I remember feeling sick. I remember the pain and the symptoms,” says Sarah Schacht who was 13 at the time.

“I remember in particular my 5-year-old brother who had the worst of it. He had hallucinations and stomach cramps and all of the gastrointestinal things that you just don’t want to think about a small child having. Fortunately, he is healthy and happy today and 6’8″ and 250.”

Schacht was struck by E. coli again after eating at an Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle earlier this year.

Contaminated food made her so sick she ended up in a hospital emergency room. She says pain was horrendous and her stomach swelled so much, she appeared pregnant.

“I found the restaurant through Yelp. It had a four-star rating. It had some great reviews. I had no idea that on King County’s website – buried within their website – were health inspections that were increasingly poor,” she says.

King County health inspectors closed the restaurant for two weeks in March after finding several violations. The county believes the restaurant was linked to three confirmed E. coli cases.

The restaurant has since reopened with a new name and has passed follow-up inspections with no further violations.

“Once I got E. coli and experienced that particular hell, I started looking at inspection ratings,” says Schacht, who is now an advocate for open government records.

King County’s restaurant inspection website is hard to navigate and interpret, she says, and has a few “quirks” that could be dangerous.

If a business name is different from the name on a business registration license it won’t show up on any inspection site, for example.
The county also uses a number system, which she says is not intuitive.

What does it mean if a restaurant scores a 93? If that’s out of 100 percent, it might seem like a decent rating.

“No, actually the goal in King County is to get zero points,” she says. “So you could have a 63, unsatisfactory rating with a bunch of blue notes under it and one red, and you’re looking at this thinking, ‘What does this mean? What does a risk category 3 mean?'”

Schacht has launched a petition that asks the county health department to streamline the restaurant health inspection system. One suggestion is to make it more user friendly with grades of “A,” “B” and “C.”

In some cities, like New York, those ratings are on display in restaurant windows. She’d like to see a similar system here.

“These ratings should be posted publicly near the entrance of all restaurants, bars, cafes, and eateries. In addition, these ratings should be made available through open data, allowing websites like Yelp to post restaurant inspection ratings in their websites and apps,” she says.

“That way when you quickly look for a restaurant in your area, you can see how safe it is along with their menu and customer reviews.”

A couple of Metro King County Council members support the idea, but it’s not known how much a change in the way restaurant inspections are reported would cost.

The King County government website is in the process of getting a much-needed upgrade. It hasn’t been changed in more than a decade.

Schacht hopes a new system can be integrated with the upgrade. Beyond being more useful for consumers, she estimates the change would reduce food poisoning hospitalization rates by 14 percent, based on what’s happened in New York.

By LINDA THOMAS

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E. coli victim pushes to improve King County restaurant reports