Starting in 2017, the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health will pilot a restaurant rating system director Patty Hayes said she believes “will become the new standard for the country.”
King County became the first municipality in the state to publish its food safety inspections online in 2001. During a 2013 review of the program, Public Health found equity and social justice disparities, said Becky Elias, food and facilities section manager, as well as a need to strengthen quality assurance and control measures.
King County residents surveyed requested more information to provided about food safety inspections, and that it be packaged and summarized in a way that’s easy to understand, Elias said, and, in 2014, Public Health began reviewing other grading systems both in the United States and abroad.
People wanted a rating system that provided more information than what can be found reviewing one food safety inspection, she said, to provide a better idea of how a restaurant might perform on a daily basis.
“They wanted to know how well did it pass, rather than just meeting the minimum standards,” Elias said during a Nov. 17 meeting with the health board.
On top of focus groups, Public Health provided an online survey in multiple languages to the public, to define priorities for its new rating system and what a rating sign that would be prominently displayed outside a food establishment would look like. There were 3,500 responses by Nov. 17, when the survey closed, said Damarys Espinoza, community outreach and engagement manager for the food safety program.
The rating system is proposed to include a list of faces, their expressions reflecting four conditions — needs improvement, fair, good and excellent.
At the lowest level, a straight-faced needs improvement rating means a food establishment had likely been closed for violations at some point or required multiple compliance checks by health officials. Elias said about 1 percent of King County establishments would fall under this rating.
Grading will be conducted on a curve and adjusted based on geographic areas. Elias said inspectors are assigned to certain areas and rotated every few years. The strictness of each inspector varies, so grading on a curve is expected to provide better balance, Elias said.
“We don’t want those subtle differences to impact what the scores would be for a business,” she said.
A food establishment that needs improvement would need four good inspections to reach an excellent rating, Elias said, which could be accomplished in about 1 1/2 years.
An entirely new rating would start if a business changed owners or the location opened as a different food establishment.
Elias said a peer-reviewed inspection process started in 2015, where two inspectors would assess food establishments, in order to compare differences. To contain costs, Elias said this practice was performed one day each month.
Seattle City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who serves on the health board, said it’s important the department ensure its inspections and ratings are equitable, avoiding any unintended disparities. Health board member Bill Daniell said he sees more Asian restaurants receiving negative food safety inspections than others.
Elias said Seattle-King County Public Health has been conducting more anti-bias training with staff and diversifying its team. She said there are complexities with Asian and other ethnic cuisine that involves more scratch cooking, adding the department has more work to do.
A phased rollout of the new food safety rating system is expected in January, with program evaluations to start immediately, Elias said. The public health board would likely have a guidance document presented for approval later that month.
“Food trucks will eventually be rolled into this system too,” Elias said.