Seattle's Food Safety Rating System is One Year Old

By Hilary N. Karasz
Public Information Officer/Education Consultant, Public Health—Seattle & King County

This blog originally appeared in Public Health Insider

In 2017, King County launched our new food safety rating system with the goal of making it the best rating system in the country. With a year under our belt, Public Health – Seattle & King County’s food safety team is proud to say that the new system has achieved measurable success.

  • Over 75 percent of all restaurants in King County now have easy to understand food safety rating signs in their front windows. This has greatly improved the ability for consumers to quickly assess the food safety practices at each restaurant.
  • Anecdotally, our food safety investigators report an increased interest from restaurant owners in improving their food safety practices, which means that the placards are motivating restaurants to do better. The number of perfect scores from all restaurants across King County increased 3 percent in 2017 from 52 percent to 55 percent.
  • The ratings provide a more complete picture of food safety than any other rating system across the country. Ratings reflect the trend of critical food safety practices over time in each restaurant and take inspector differences into account to make sure the playing field is level.

More information for consumers

If a restaurant is open in King County, it meets minimum food safety standards. If we find a facility that does not meet those standards during our inspections, it’s not allowed to continue operating until the problems are fixed, period. We post restaurants that we close on our website, and list the reasons why.

The food safety rating system you see on the window tells you how well a restaurant is doing above that minimum standard. We base that score – “Excellent”, “Good” or “OK”– on points that inspectors have given for the most significant violations. (The “Needs for Improvement” category is based on recent closures or multiple return inspections.) Now, back to the zip code adjustment:

Understanding the zip code adjustments

Past Insider blogs described some of the more technical details about how this innovative system works, including the zip code adjustment, but it is complex. The rating system is based on a complex statistical algorithm that incorporates data about individual inspectors, inspector behavior at large and restaurant food safety practices. The bottom line is that the number of points needed for an “excellent” or a “good” (or a “good” and an “okay”) varies very slightly between inspectors. The zip code adjustment helps even things out. How does this work – and why? Let’s review.

Our inspectors

Our inspectors are some of the best in the business. To work in the program, inspectors need to pass a vigorous environmental health competency exam and most also have extensive experience on the ground in the restaurant business – so they really know food safety top to bottom.  While each food safety inspector undergoes extensive training and enforces the same state food code, they each have slightly different approaches to gaining compliance from restaurants. To adjust for these differences, the rating system adjusts rating benchmarks (which are point cut-offs between excellent and good, and good and okay) for all the restaurants in an area the inspector is in charge of – typically by zip code. Again, we wrote about this adjustment and why it matters  back in January, 2017.

The bottom line is that zip code adjustments make the window placards fairer by taking into account inspector differences. Slightly different cut offs DO NOT MEAN that some restaurants are getting better grades than others without deserving those grades. In fact, without the adjustment, grades would be more likely to reflect the inspector, and not the restaurant practices! You, as a consumer, would be comparing apples to oranges, or at least tangerines to oranges, and that doesn’t make sense.

If there were no adjustment, then a given restaurant could have a “good” or an “excellent” sign solely depending on who the inspector was, not based on food safety performance.  That is neither fair to the restaurant nor useful to you as a consumer.

How are the adjustments made?

Using years of inspector and inspection data, a statistical formula identifies relatively “tougher” and “easier” inspectors and makes adjustments – to level the playing field. This means that to get an “excellent” from a relatively easier inspector – who tends to note fewer violations in general – restaurants must accrue fewer points on their inspection. Similarly, if the inspector is relatively tough compared to other inspectors and tends to document more violations than average, then the restaurant could accrue more points to get the very same “excellent.” The food safety at each of the restaurants is the same – the difference being the inspector – and our adjustment accounts for these differences.

It is important to know that every restaurant across King County has the opportunity to receive an “Excellent” grade based on its performance, regardless of the inspector. If all the restaurants perform the same across the inspector’s territory, then all the restaurants would get the same grade.

It is also important to know that there is no cutoff for restaurants that do not meet basic food safety standards. King County Food Safety policy requires that any restaurant that has critical food safety violations of 35 points or more requires a return visit from the investigator to make sure they have addressed concerns.

The overriding goal of Public Health – Seattle & King County’s food safety team is to improve food safety for consumers. Our team has embraced continuous quality improvement as a matter of practice. We continually seeking to improve consistency and accuracy among inspectors by conducting quality assessments of the food rating system and by providing on-going training. In addition to evaluating and rating restaurants, Public Health’s food safety team provides periodic educational visits to restaurants with more complex menus – where more food safety problems can arise.

The food safety team will continue to make improvements to the rating program and will continue to keep you informed. If you have any questions, please feel free to call the Food Program at 206-263-8827.

Originally posted on February 7, 2018