The Seattle/King County health department’s new window-placard grades reflect a given restaurant’s number of violations compared with its neighbors, not with the whole region’s establishments.

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The Seattle area is finally getting window placards in restaurants showing ratings for food safety, but it’s grading on a curve.

Rather than grading all local restaurants as a group on matters such as hand washing, temperature control of food, and serving practices, officials from Public Health – Seattle & King County have chosen to divide them into ZIP codes. About half of all restaurants in a given ZIP code receive an “excellent” grade, regardless of their actual scores.

The scale goes like this: The highest-scoring 50 percent of restaurants in each area will be rated as “excellent,” the next 40 percent as “good,” and 10 percent as “okay.” The “needs to improve” category — restaurants that have been shut down for health violations within the last year or that “needed multiple return inspections to fix food safety practices” — is considered separately and not graded on the curve.

Two restaurants with the exact same inspection score in two different ZIP codes can receive different grades. A restaurant deemed “good” in one area might qualify as “excellent” in another. Customers who are especially susceptible to foodborne illness — pregnant women, small children, the elderly, cancer patients, the immunocompromised — would not be comparing like to like when it comes to restaurant-grade placards across the county.

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Public Health maintains that “consumers tend to dine locally by their ZIP code or area,” and that the system “provides accurate and useful information … about how well a restaurant performs on food safety compared to restaurants nearby.”

The department’s Carley Thompson elaborates that “the feedback we received showed people wanted to know how restaurants performed on food safety compared to restaurants in the same ZIP code.” The department also says that since restaurants within a given area “tend to have the same food inspector … rating on a curve helps compensate for differences in inspection-rating style.”

Perplexed? You’re not alone. The unorthodox policy is meeting with skepticism from some Seattle restaurateurs, from pho- and sandwich-shop owners to upscale operators.

Khanhvan “K.V.” Tran, co-owner of Dong Thap Noodles in the Chinatown International District, objects. “I believe it should be rated by individual restaurant, rather than the rating being on a curve by the neighborhood,” she says, “because that takes away from the hard work of those restaurants’ excellent performance.”

Miles James, owner of Dot’s Butcher & Deli in Pike Place Market, more forcefully opines, “That’s the … dumbest thing I’ve ever heard — junior high schools stopped grading on a curve 30 years ago … That makes less than no sense.”

High-end restaurateur and recent James Beard Award-winner Renee Erickson says she doesn’t get it. “It’s about how each restaurant understands and cares for our food safety and cleanliness,” she maintains, “not what each neighborhood does.”

And while Rachel Yang, chef and co-owner of several upscale Seattle restaurants, says she “sort of” understands the health department’s “explanation that they are accounting for how each inspector might have different standards … it defeats the purpose of having the ratings in the first place.” She wishes they’d “invest more on training” instead.

But the policy was revealed at the last minute of a yearslong process that Public Health says included “extra training and … peer review inspections where staff conduct inspections side by side to learn from each other,” to “make inspectors more consistent with each other,” according to Public Health’s website.

Public Health spokesperson Lindsay Bosslet says the grading system is “a pretty innovative and new model, a data-driven process that also involves a lot of community feedback and involvement.”

Originally driven by a Change.org petition posted by food-safety advocate Sarah Schacht that got more than 2,000 signatures, the department’s process began in 2014, involving research and gathering “recommendations, priorities and concerns from restaurant operators, food safety experts, diverse language speaking communities and communities of color.”

Another innovation is the department’s use of emojis as the main graphic element on the new restaurant-window placards — a grinning smiley face for “excellent,” a less-wide smile for “good,” smaller still for “okay,” and a flatline-mouthed face for “needs to improve.” The emojis are the product of community meetings, department visits to more than 100 restaurants to gather feedback, and an online survey in eight languages that got more than 3,500 responses.

New York and Los Angeles both require restaurants to post their health-department ratings, and both use a letter grading system of A, B or C. (Los Angeles also gives a numeric score to a fourth, lowest category of restaurants rated “poor in food-handling practices and overall general food facility maintenance.”) Both cities base their grades on the most recent inspection, while Seattle’s system includes the last four health-department assessments to “reflect how well a restaurant has performed over time.”

Full data for Seattle/King County restaurant inspections are available online. Meanwhile, the health department’s Thompson says rollout of the new system will occur in four phases for an ongoing evaluation process, starting with West Seattle. “We welcome feedback on the food-safety rating system,” she says.