New faces for restaurant ratings, food safety in King County

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SEATTLE — Whether it’s a giant grin, or maybe a sort of smirk, the face of food safety is changing in King County this year. Your favorite restaurants around Seattle are now getting an emoji ranking based on their food safety performance.

And while ranking restaurants based on safety protocols isn’t new, the way King County is undertaking this process could catch on across the nation.

“If they had posted scores,” says Seattleite Sarah Schacht, “I wouldn’t have gotten sick.”

Schacht doesn’t want what happened to her to happen to you. She’s had the misfortune of getting E. coli twice from restaurant food.

“You experience weeks of stabbing pain in your gut, internal bleeding. There’s small children and even some adults who have died from E. coli.”

Schacht has been part of the citizen push to rate restaurants with visible rankings. And after much deliberation and outreach to restaurant owners, they came up with a new four-tiered system. The new rankings denote grinning emojis to denote whether a place is considered: excellent, good, okay or needs improvement.

"We created a system that can be universally understood," said King County Executive Dow Constantine, adding that it's important the rankings were more than just pass/fail for the roughly 12,000 restaurants in King County. "They are more than just businesses, they make our neighborhoods more vibrant places to live."

The emojis ratings are going to be based on the restaurant's last four food inspections. And the food inspectors themselves will be paired up to make sure there's consistency in the ratings.


"Safe food is the standard we want to hold for everybody," says Becky Elias, who runs the program for the King County Public Health Department.

She says restaurants are also graded on a curve based on their zip code. So, only the top 50 percent of restaurants in any one area can earn an "excellent" rating. Elias says "the combination of four inspections and the adjustment by zip code helps to take into account variations that could be a new owner in the business, new workers in the business, a change of menu or a change in inspector."



E. coli survivor Schacht says she's not a fan of grading restaurants on a curve, but she is very enthusiastic about the fact that this restaurant rating project is underway.

"There [has been] a need for transparency so people can make informed decisions in the marketplace."

It will take most of the year to roll out the new posts county-wide. And if you find your favorite eatery gets anything less than "excellent" you can still look up online to see whether the infraction was soup that was a degree too warm or something more serious.

King County Public Health will continue to put the detailed inspection reports on their website.