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Seattle and King County Plan to Publicly Post Restaurant Inspection Scores

Due to increasing consumer interest, made even more evident by 2,000 signatures on an online petition, Public Health – Seattle & King County is developing a system for publicly posting restaurant inspection scores that could be up and running by the end of next year.

Mark Rowe, manager of Seattle and King County’s food protection program, acknowledged that public pressure played a part in the decision, although local public health officials had been looking at publicly posting restaurant inspection scores for some time. The goal, he added, is to have useful, understandable and accessible information that will give a true picture of a restaurant’s food-safety and cleanliness practices over time.

“What I really want to get across, and it’s a lot of education for everyone, is that one inspection is just one inspection and not something you should really be taking as the factor for whether you should be eating in a specific restaurant,” Rowe said. “We want to look at a better picture of how an establishment is performing over time rather than just the last three or four inspections.”

The change.org petition was spearheaded by Sarah Schacht of Seattle, a two-time E. coli survivor who said that such tools can be a good way to mobilize people and demonstrate demand for government services, particularly when “dealing with an agency that’s unelected and resistant to change.”

She said the United States already has an emerging standard format for restaurant inspection scores, which is the letter grade format (A, B and C) that we sometimes see posted in the windows of food service establishments in larger cities.

Schacht said that in cities where efficient and easily usable scoring systems are posted for the public, the practice has lowered the incidence of foodborne illnesses. For example, in Toronto, Canada, the “DineSafe” color-coded restaurant grading system launched more than 10 years ago posts inspection scores where customers can see them, and officials there reportedly credit the system for contributing to a “dramatic jump in compliance levels and a significant drop in foodborne illness.”

Hamilton, Ont., just rolled out a new “food safety inspection disclosure program” this year which gives out one of three certificates following an inspection: green for a pass, yellow for a conditional pass, and red for a fail, meaning the business must close.

According to Hamilton’s online guide about the new program, “Research has shown that disclosure of inspection results increases compliance with food safety standards. Increased compliance may then reduce the risk of foodborne illness.”

Besides being physically posted on the premises of a given establishment – regardless of whether letters, colors or symbols are used – restaurant inspection results are increasing being shared via social media sites such as Yelp.com. So far, Yelp has incorporated restaurant scores from the City of San Francisco; Los Angeles County; New York City; Louisville, KY, and Wake County (Raleigh), NC, in its online reviews.

This information is imported in the LIVES format, for Local Inspector Value Entry Specification, an open data standard Yelp developed in cooperation with city technology departments in San Francisco and New York.

“Yelp is providing a nice, standardized interface where citizens, whether in LA or Wake County, North Carolina, can rely on a scoring system and easily interpret it. I think it’s brilliant,” Schacht said. “The thing is, it doesn’t cost health departments anything except a few hours of staff time to get their scores accurately represented in Yelp, and Yelp is going to have consistently higher usership than anything else.”

Cost is a factor for most local health departments these days. However, Schacht pointed out, public health officials are more likely to be effective in decreasing foodborne illnesses by putting restaurant scores on sites such as Yelp instead of simply putting up signs or websites that aren’t regularly updated or as user-friendly as they might be.

“I can understand why public health departments are concerned about budgets and concerned about perceptions and are risk-averse, but they have some fantastic opportunities in front of them right now that are extraordinarily low-cost and very low-risk,” she said, adding, “They don’t have to pay Yelp to get their scores out there; Yelp will do it for free.”

Rowe said that Public Health – Seattle & King County does anticipate incurring some additional expense from publicly reporting restaurant inspection scores and that they might need additional staff beyond their current 40 inspectors. There’s also concern that the approximately 11,400 restaurants in their jurisdiction are treated fairly in the process.

“One of the things we want to make sure of is we put forth a system that still gives people the opportunity to appeal grades,” he said. “We don’t want to encourage a system that costs so much that it’s not worthwhile to implement. It has to be feasible for us and industry.”

Rowe indicated that the next step is to engage a group of stakeholders to do some additional research and come up with a system that works for all concerned. Schacht noted that she has been invited to be a part of the review process. Meanwhile, Public Health – Seattle & King County is asking for public input on the current system of presenting restaurant inspection scores and any suggestions for improvement.

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