When the venerable 13 Coins restaurant in SeaTac was briefly shut down after an inspection by the county Health Department last month, it was the 12th time out of 13 routine inspections listed on the department’s website since 2007 that it had received an “unsatisfactory” rating.
In New York, potential customers would have seen those earlier scores posted in letter grades on the restaurant’s door. In San Francisco, customers would have been tipped off by checking out Yelp, which posts inspection grades right along with restaurant hours and reader reviews.
In Seattle, though, diners need to work considerably harder to find such information, but that is likely to change soon.
The system now involves looking up the restaurant’s name on a county website, deciphering the color codes and numbered scores that detail a range of problems, from inadequate ventilation (blue violation, 2 points) to improper “hot holding temperatures” (red critical violation, 25 points.) As in golf, the higher the score, the poorer the performance.
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“If we’re being honest with each other, very few people think to find a King County restaurant-inspection score site and look up a restaurant before they go to it,” said Sarah Schacht, a Seattle resident on a mission to make restaurant reports as in-your-face here as they are in some other cities. Far more likely, she noted, is for eaters to open up an app “and look at what restaurants are in a two-block radius of you that are also, say, Indian food.”
Schacht, an open-government consultant by profession, had two personal reasons for pushing the issue when she organized a Change.org petition asking the Health Department to publicly post inspection scores and make them more widely available.
One reason was the E. coli infection she contracted as a kid in 1993 as one of hundreds stricken in the notorious Jack In The Box outbreak that killed four children. The other was the physical suffering, steep medical bills and lasting health problems she reported last year after being hospitalized with E. coli again after eating at an Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle with a history of inspection problems. It was later shut down by the Health Department.
It was a “harrowing” experience with internal bleeding and stabbing pains that “felt like I was being sliced open.” Even after the final insurance payments are ironed out, she estimated she’ll have $5,000 to $10,000 in out-of-pocket bills, and lasting painful aftereffects make it hard to eat normally.
She’s now a
member of a Health Department panel studying how to best make inspection reports more readily available. Pursuant to that committee’s work, the county’s system will likely change, a decision that officials say was in the works even before Schacht’s petition.
“I suspect that we’ll see restaurant score signs in the next year or so, and probably testing of the scoring system within the year,” Schacht told supporters on her Change.org page.
Letter-grade scores aren’t a given. They’ve been bitterly fought by restaurant associations in other jurisdictions, and the Washington Restaurant Association — not to mention the Health Department — finds them problematic.
“We supported the posting of inspections online, and I think technology has developed further so public disclosure can be even better,” said association President Anthony Anton. How to do that “creatively” is another question, he said, and a letter grade “doesn’t really state what the issue is, nor do inspections come often enough that you really get a snapshot of what’s going on in a restaurant.”
With that in mind, the Health Department is moving cautiously, looking for a way that gives an overall view of a restaurant’s record.
“We are exploring a system to reflect more of a trend of performance, because that’s probably a better reflection of performance than a snapshot grade of a single inspection,” said spokeswoman Hilary Karasz.
“We want to do this right: a system that provides accurate, useful information to as many people as possible.”
The 22 people at the panel’s inaugural meeting included representatives from “restaurant, food-truck and grocery operators; child care, senior care and emergency food providers; community organizations, WSU Food Safety experts, WA Dept. of Health and members of the public interested in restaurant reporting systems,” Karasz said. (Meeting schedules and requests for public input are online at http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/ehs/foodsafety.aspx.)
County restaurants are inspected between one and three times each year, depending on their level of risk. Full-service eateries, for instance, are inspected more frequently than coffee shops. The county’s 35 to 40 inspectors also return to restaurants if the inspector feels it’s warranted, “and, of course, we follow up on any and all complaints,” Karasz said. The SeaTac 13 Coins, for instance, was reinspected shortly after the shutdown and reopened with a perfect score.
The county was actually a leader in disseminating restaurant-inspections data years back, one of the first to put such information online. Some states still have no online inspection reports, according to a compilation by Seattle-based Food Safety News. A few years ago the system for Public Health — Seattle & King County was redesigned to make the data more accessible to other agencies or application developers who might want to distribute it, Karasz said.
At least one site, Dinegerous.com, makes automated use of the reports, posting maps with color-coded guides to inspections. Among the many red flags posted on its map looking just in the city’s North End were Rocking Wok with a recent inspection score of 86, and 80 for Billy Beach Sushi & Bar. Scores of either 90 or 120 require a restaurant to be temporarily shut down, depending on whether points were accumulated from high-risk “red” or less serious “blue” violations.
Even a quick browse through the county database shows poor scores aren’t uncommon for establishments at every price point, from street food trucks to swanky steakhouses.
Green Leaf, considered one of the best Vietnamese places in the city, was briefly shut down after a 2013 inspection, in part because of “unavailable” hand-washing facilities and preparing food “in an unapproved room without sanitary facilities.”
Restaurants as rarefied as four-star Canlis aren’t exempt; it received an “unsatisfactory” 25-point score in 2011. (Its four inspections since then resulted in three perfect zero scores and one nearly perfect 3.) Some violation-laden reports are one-time blips; some restaurants earn habitually poor scores.
Schacht, recovering from her grueling ordeal, notes that the goal of public data is to encourage restaurants to improve their practices, not just to alert diners about places they might avoid.
“Toronto, I think, is a great case study. In 2002 they implemented a scoring system that was a color-coded system, red being bad, yellow being medium, green being good or excellent,” she said.
According to Toronto Public Health reports, cases of food-borne illness dropped 30 percent over the next several years, while the rate of clean restaurant inspections soared. A New York City report, similarly, found better restaurant sanitation practices and a significant drop in salmonella cases after the first year restaurants were required to post letter grades.
“Having scores in places like Yelp is going to drive down infection rates even further. It’s important the county go to where their citizens are getting their information,” Schacht said.
That part of it, at least, could be simple to solve. The county would welcome seeing its inspection scores on far-reaching Yelp, Karasz said, but hasn’t been approached by the business. Yelp, though, considers Seattle “a city we would love to work with,” said Luther Lowe, the company’s director of public policy. “The first step, though, typically is initiated by the city.”
In other words, if officials reach out, it should be possible to get inspections data easily online. Though Yelp has a few other cities in its inspections queue right now, and is working on getting international scores online, tech-savvy Seattle is one of the top five “Yelpiest” in the world by data measures, Lowe said.
The company piloted the restaurant-inspections postings in San Francisco last year, then followed it up in Louisville, Ky., partly to show the opportunity and the benefits weren’t limited to high-tech metropolises. The information is also online in Los Angeles County, New York City, and Wake County, N.C.
Lowe called the move “an easy win for citizens,” putting already public information in a user-friendly form. Letter grades aren’t required for the system to work, Lowe said, the data just has to be in a form where it has “some type of scale” from worst to best.
“We think it’s interesting the effect it’s having on putting more sunshine on the data,” he said, citing the studies on drops in food-borne illness.
“Our hope is that if we can make this a ubiquitous standard we can save lives.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3,000 Americans die from food-borne diseases annually, but 1 in 6 will fall ill in some way.
Indeed, Schacht’s double encounter with E. coli, unlucky as it was, speaks to just how common food-borne illness still is.
“That’s the luck of the draw,” she said, “and it can happen to anyone.”
Rebekah Denn writes about food at seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat.