With the new year comes a new way to rate food safety: A Q&A with Becky Elias and Damarys Espinoza

In January a brand new one-of-a-kind food safety rating system is coming to King County. Public Health has been hard at work developing a new food safety rating system that gives King County residents the information they need to remain safe while eating out. Restaurants will now receive one of four food safety ratings that will be posted on restaurant window signs.

Food Program Manager Becky Elias and Community Engagement and Outreach Manager Damarys Espinoza answer all of your questions about the new Food Safety Rating System.

Becky Elias working on the new rating system in her office at Public Health.

Why did Public Health create a new Food Safety Rating System?

Elias: We heard loud and clear from people all over the County that they wanted more information about restaurant inspections. We have always valued making that information available, and have posted full restaurant inspection results online since 2001. People liked the information online, but wanted more. They were telling us that they wanted the information to be easy to understand, and to see it at the restaurant, helping them make decisions on the spot.

When does the new system go into effect?

Espinoza: The new system will launch in January, 2017 – we’re so excited! Restaurants will receive their new food safety rating and window sign when they are routinely inspected. Restaurants in King County are routinely inspected on average 1-3 times per year so some restaurants may not have their routine inspection until later in 2017.The rating system will happen in phases across the county, starting with the northwest part, so don’t worry if you do not see a window sign in your favorite restaurant right away.

Damarys Espinoza gathering feedback on the rating system at a community stakeholder meeting.

What are the four food safety ratings?

Elias: An important thing for people to remember is that if a restaurant is open, it has met the minimum food safety standard. The ratings help to communicate how well a restaurant practices food safety beyond meeting the minimum standard. The four food safety ratings are “Needs to Improve,” “Okay,” “Good” and “Excellent.”

Espinoza: The rating focuses on what the program calls ‘red critical violations.’ Over the last four inspections restaurants in the “Excellent” category have had NO or FEW red critical violations, restaurants in the”Good” category have had SOME red critical violations and restaurants in the “Okay” category have had MANY red critical violations. Restaurants in the “Needs to Improve” category have either been closed by Public Health within the last year or the restaurant needed multiple return inspections to fix food safety practices.

Red critical violations are food handling practices that, when not done properly, are most likely to lead to food borne illnesses. This includes food safety basics: proper hand washing, maintaining clean surfaces, cooking food to a safe temperature and keeping hot food hot and cold food cold.


What is behind a restaurant’s rating?

Elias: A restaurant’s rating is based on three main components: trend of food safety practices over time, scale of performance and rating on a curve.

Espinoza: Good food safety needs to be practiced every day. Window signs will reflect how well a restaurant has performed over time, not just on a single inspection. Ratings are determined by the average of red critical violation points from a restaurant’s last four routine inspections. Using four routine inspections gives a better idea of how that restaurant practices food safety over time instead of just a snap shot of one inspection.

Elias: Scale of performance addresses what we heard from the public about wanting to know more than if a restaurant passes or fails an inspection. The restaurant window signs will show how well the restaurant practices food safety beyond meeting the minimum standard. Knowing the level of food safety is especially important to people with weakened immune systems, to make the best choices for them when it comes to dining out.

We also heard from people that they wanted to know how well a restaurant practices food safety in comparison to other restaurants within the same neighborhood. That’s why each restaurant’s average score is compared with other restaurants within the same zip code or geographic area. This is called rating on a curve. Rating on a curve helps to alleviate differences in rating style between inspectors. All of our inspectors address food safety, and just like teachers have different grading styles, there is always some degree of variation across how an inspector inspects.

Why are Emojis used in the rating system?

Espinoza: This is one of my favorite questions. One of the greatest things about King County is that is so diverse. It is extremely important that we develop programs and policies that work for all members of our community. With that in mind, we wanted to make sure that the window signs are easily understood by everyone.

Students from UW asked focus groups about using stars and letter grades. They found that people associate stars with consumer reviews or how a food tastes, and not how safe it is.  Letter scales, such as ABC, were found to be confusing by many people. Depending on your reading level and schooling background the letters could mean different things.

Through additional focus groups and surveys, we learned that emojis, or smiley faces, are something that most everyone understands.

Was the public involved with creating the New Food Safety Rating System?

Elias: From the beginning we made a conscious effort to involve restaurant operators and the community in developing the food safety rating system. In 2014, we held stakeholder meetings to hear from food safety experts, restaurant operators and community members what they would want out of a food safety rating system. We consistently heard that people wanted a rating to use the results from more than one inspection and people wanted to know more than just whether a restaurant passed or failed an inspection. We used these recommendations to start developing a rating system that improved inspection quality and consistency.

Espinoza:  It is important to us to have open conversations with our community to create a system that meets the broad range of needs. As we developed the rating system, we held community meetings, conducted focus groups and conducted interviews at over 140 restaurants to gather recommendations, priorities and concerns from restaurant operators, food safety experts, diverse language speaking communities and communities of color.  We also conducted an online survey in eight different languages to gather feedback on the design of the window signs. We received over 3,800 responses! We really want to thank everyone who took the time to complete the survey. All of the feedback was really important.

This feedback really informed the Food Safety Rating System.

Draft window sign designs from the public survey.


Will food inspections be conducted the same way?

Elias: Yes, the expectations for food safety are the same, and inspectors will continue to conduct inspections based on the same criteria that they always have.

One way we are improving our work is by having inspectors do inspections side by side once a month. This helps them share skills and learn from each other. This has been a great way to build teamwork and with our staff create a more consistent way of doing inspections.

Is the new system fair to restaurants?

Espinoza: We worked hard to design a new food safety rating system that advanced equity and fairness. Our rating methods were designed to fairly measure a restaurant’s food safety practices by focusing on trend over time, scale of performance and rating on a curve.

We listened to the concerns of restaurant operators about food safety inspection consistency. To address this concern we provided extra training and started peer review inspections.

We developed the Food Safety Rating System in a collaborative way which included extensive outreach to restaurants, communities, food safety experts and King County residents.

We are also committed to continue that collaboration by making changes to the rating system based on evaluation results in order to advance equity and fairness.

How does this help the people who are eating at restaurants?

Elias: The new rating system provides King County residents with more information about the level of a restaurant’s food safety practices in an easy to understand way. People can walk down the street, see a window sign outside of a restaurant and be able to easily understand that restaurant’s food safety practices at a glance. When the system launches in January we will also have a mobile friendly website that makes it easy to look up inspection results.

Can the public give more feedback about the system?

Elias: Absolutely. Public Health is committed to evaluating the new rating system, continuing to take feedback from restaurant operators, community members and the public and using that feedback to make changes to the system as needed.

Here at Public Health we are excited for the launch of the new Food Safety Rating System in January and we are proud of the information it brings King County residents.

Check back in January for the reveal of the restaurant window sign!  

Originally posted on December 19, 2016