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Two-Time E. coli Victim Pushes to Improve Seattle’s Restaurant Grading System

Sarah Schacht is part of a select group of people with the distinction of falling ill with E. coli in two separate outbreaks. First a victim in Seattle’s Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993 at the age of 13, Schacht was hit with the bug again 20 years later after dining at a Seattle Ethiopian restaurant tied to an E. coli outbreak in February.

Schacht’s latest bout with E. coli left her with plenty of free time in bed to think about her predicament. In the aftermath of the outbreak, she attempted to access the recent inspection reports on the restaurant, Ambassel, but said she found King County Public Health’s restaurant inspection Website antiquated and difficult to use, and the grading system seemed unnecessarily confusing.

An open government advisor, Schacht wondered why it was difficult for her to access Ambassel’s poor inspection reports, in which it received unsatisfactory ratings in five of its six inspections. She said she felt the inaccessibility of the inspection reports were especially concerning compared to how easily she could find positive reviews for the place.

“It was the highest-rated restaurant on Yelp for Ethiopian Cuisine,” Schacht said. “But I had no idea this restaurant’s [health inspection] scores were plummeting. Had I known that, I never would have walked in there.”

Knowing that cities such as San Francisco and New York have markedly improved access to restaurant grading information in recent years, Schacht approached King County Public Health (KCPH) about doing something similar in Seattle. But after what Schacht described as months of attempted communication with little action, she finally felt compelled to create a petition to help raise awareness and encourage change.

At press time, Schacht’s petition has more than 1,400 signatures — fewer than 600 away from its 2,000 signature goal. The petition asks KCPH to introduce a letter grade system that ranks restaurant inspections on a scale of A, B, C, D and F, with “A” indicating an excellent inspection and “F” requiring a temporary closure. The grades would be displayed somewhere outside the restaurant, and the county could provide data to Web-based services such as Yelp and Urbanspoon to easily share inspection data online.

Schacht cited a health report from New York City that found a 14-percent drop in Salmonella infections the year following the implementation of those practices — a “distinctly different” drop compared to recent trends. The grading system also inspires restaurants to better maintain their facilities, and it rewards the best actors, Schacht said.

Schacht added that the personnel at KCPH had treated her “amazingly” when she was sick. Her recommendations are not a criticism of KCPH, only the information technology related to its restaurant inspections.

“I decided I couldn’t just sit around while more people got sick,” she said. She offered KCPH 30 hours of her time as an open government consultant pro bono, but they didn’t take her up on it.

Mark Rowe, Food Program & Water Recreation Program Manager at KCPH, met with Schacht more than a month ago to discuss her proposed ideas. Speaking to Food Safety News, Rowe said that he was interested in potentially updating the county’s Website system and finding ways to make restaurant inspection information more easily accessible, but it would take time to determine the best system available.

“I’m interested in looking at this, but we need to do the research first and look at the options out there,” Rowe said. “We want to make sure we come up with a good, evidence-based solution.”

KCPH briefly shut down Ambassel in March to resolve the E. coli contamination, and Schacht recovered from her infection around the same time.

Rowe said he would like to work with stakeholders, including restaurant owners and the public, to come up with the best way to update their inspection information system. One of KCPH’s primary concerns, he said, was ensuring that the data communicate a restaurant’s inspection history and not just one poor inspection that might have been conducted on a bad day.

Rowe noted that the county’s current restaurant inspection Website received 35,000 visitors in the first quarter of 2013.

Schacht reiterated that the current system does not provide an easy way for members of the public to patronize establishments with the best records of cleanliness, which could ultimately help reduce illness.

“I think we’re really missing an opportunity to avoid cases of food poisoning like mine,” she said.

For both of her E. coli infections, Schacht has been a client of food safety law firm Marler Clark, which underwrites Food Safety News.

© Food Safety News
  • Johnathan Doe

    “..not just one bad inspection that might have been conducted on a bad day.” What is the meaning of this statement? Mark Rowe needs to explain what this means, especially for the E.Coli victims who experienced more than one bad day.

    • JAndrewsFSN

      Hi Johnathan,

      Thanks for your comment. I can’t speak for Mr. Rowe, but I think he meant that he would like for whatever new system the county adopts to reflect a restaurant’s history of inspections, not just the grade given during the most recent inspection. I interpreted “bad day” in the context of making some simple errors around the kitchen on a given inspection day that might not necessarily represent the restaurant’s track record. Causing an outbreak is certainly indicative of more than a bad day and merits a restaurant closure to resolve the problem.

  • Barb3000

    It sounds to me like this Rowe is simply trying to please Ms.Schacht to get her off of his neck. When you read what he says about the stakeholders of these restaurants it sounds more like hes more interested in pleasing them than coming up with a restaurant report card that a consumer could see at a glance.

  • Maven

    Restaurant grades don’t always convey useful risk information to patrons. The potential inspection violations that suggest that a viral illness like Hepatitis A could occur can be very different than the violations that suggest an E. coli or Salmonella illness could occur, and both are different that the violations that suggest that an intoxication illness like Staphylococcal Enterotoxin or C. Perferingens could occur. It’s not just a matter of inspection accessibility, it also has to do with how the violations are interpreted as risks, and that can be greatly improved. To Mr. Rowe’s point, the inspections should reflect a broader probability that different types of outbreaks could occur by examining protocols in place at a restaurant to prevent food safety violations, not just the behavior observed on one day. Sure, maybe nobody is vomiting in the kitchen when the inspector is there, but how does the restaurant practically ensure that no employees ever come to work when sick?

  • Lorna

    Where can we read/sign Ms. Schacht’s petition?