Food Safety Ratings Get a Facelift

You may not have heard about it, but the health department of King County, Wash., is turning restaurant food safety on its head. The county, which includes Seattle among its roughly 40 cities and towns, first announced plans to change its restaurant health score system in 2014. Since then, officials have worked to develop a food safety rating system that is more informative and reliable than the number or letter rating systems many cities use.

So, how does a health department better communicate a restaurant’s food safety practices to potential diners? According to King County, with emojis. To learn more about this new food safety rating system, we talked with Becky Elias, food protection program manager for Public Health of Seattle & King County, about why emojis were chosen as a means of communication and how the system can help consumers make safer dining decisions.

Equitable Emojis

Different versions of the system were proposed and voted on before Public Health settled on the final rendition, shown below. It features different smiley faces, or emojis, on grey, yellow, light green, and dark green backgrounds, which represent four categories: needs to improve, okay, good, and excellent.

Food Safety Rating System

“What we found is that when we did the in-person focus groups and the one-on-one interviews, and then when we conducted the surveys in multiple languages, non-English speakers, mostly regardless of the language, were most drawn to the emojis,” Elias explains. “We also found that English speakers were mostly drawn to the emojis. They felt like that was something that all of them could understand.”

This helped officials in charge of developing the system choose the emojis as “a universal communicator.” Data compiled in 2013 shows that King County residents speak at least 170 different languages, with 25.4 percent primarily speaking a language other than English and 10.9 percent having limited proficiency with speaking English. Additionally, Visit Seattle lists tourism as the fourth-largest industry in Washington State and estimates the area hosted 38.1 million total visitors in 2015, with international guests accounting for 7.3 percent of that number.

To ensure feedback on the proposed emoji system could be collected from the English and non-English speakers in King County’s community, an online survey released by the public health department in late 2016, which received more than 3,500 responses, was made available in eight languages.

“There have been a handful of people who have commented on emojis by saying, ‘Are these too simple? Will it be the right messaging tool?’ We did focus groups and interviews with a few hundred people, and the online surveys, and so within those realms we’re obviously going to get quite a range of responses and feedback,” Elias says, addressing some concerns the proposed system has received.

Still, she says the majority of the reactions to the emojis have been positive.

“Even though it may feel cartoonish or something we associate more with text messaging, it’s no doubt been overwhelming feedback from our community that it is a useful communication tool for them,” Elias says.

Green was chosen as a background color because less positive colors, like red or orange, failed to send the right message to consumers.

“We found that if we used a color like that, people’s first reaction was, ‘Well, if it’s that bad, why aren’t they closed?’ So, we spent a lot of time figuring out what was the right way to demonstrate that the lowest category is meeting the minimum standard,” Elias explains. “The lowest score begins with having met the minimum standard to be open, and beyond that we’re conveying how well they’ve done over time beyond meeting that minimum standard. That’s how we ended up using a straight line for the mouth of the lowest category, and why we decided not to use a red or an orange [background] there. It flagged it so much that people thought it shouldn’t be open for business.”

Focusing on Food Safety

King County has posted restaurant health scores online since 2001, but the new system is designed to be displayed in storefronts. This will give potential diners a more accessible way to make knowledgeable decisions about the restaurants at which they choose to eat. By utilizing a simpler form of communication, the information is available to passersby regardless of the languages they speak.

The system also emphasizes a restaurant’s food safety track record by focusing on red critical violations (unsafe food handling practices that have a higher probability of causing foodborne illnesses) and taking multiple inspection results over the last 12 months into account. Elias identified these aspects as some of the reasons King County’s new system will be an improvement over number- or letter-based systems.

“There’s [a lot of] things that we know can affect an inspection result or can affect how food safety is happening on any given day. Those variations could be a new chef or a new owner, change in other staff, a new menu or changing of ingredients, a business having a good day or a bad day, weather affecting equipment or temperature of how food is being maintained, [or] the style of an inspector,” Elias says. “I think it is a much more accurate portrayal that helps mitigate all of those variations, but conveys how well that restaurant does over time.”

According to the King County website, a restaurant’s score under the new system “will be determined by the average of red critical violation points from a restaurant’s last four routine inspections.” Red critical violations are aimed at preventing issues like cross-contamination, undercooked meat, and unwashed hands. Formulating the system around red critical violations may do more to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness while helping consumers be aware of the importance of good food safety procedures.

“It’s a ‘food safety rating system,’ so people are hearing that phrase and that concept over and over again,” Elias says. “We’re trying to help communicate to people what those red critical violations are. We work really hard to promote messages about food safety; we want to help people feel confident about the food they’re eating when they’re dining out or when they’re cooking at home.”

Blue critical violations, which are not expected to cause foodborne illnesses, encompass factors like the maintenance of the restaurant’s building, food labeling procedures, and utensils and equipment. Currently, blue critical violations do not impact a restaurant’s rating under the new system.

“We’re trying to be really data-driven and evidence-based with our decision making around the system. And, right now, all of our data and evidence has led us down the path of focusing on red critical violations,” Elias says. “It’s certainly possible that as we move forward, we might find that it seems appropriate to integrate those [blue] violations as well. But we’re not at that place yet.”

Curved Categories

To further ensure King County residents can make an informed dining decision, the new rating system will compare a restaurant’s food safety practices to those of eateries around it.

“We heard from the dining public that when they’re making dining decisions, [they aren’t] picking the best one based on all restaurants in the county,” Elias says. “They’re usually in a single geographic place looking at all the restaurants around them and trying to decide, ‘What restaurant has the best food safety around me right now?’ [We wanted] to meet that consumer behavior need.”

Although it helps consumers make better choices, grading restaurants on a curve can also provide some benefit to the businesses in that area.

“We heard from restaurants and from inspectors that there can be some variation across inspector style or business style, even though they’re all working toward the exact same food safety goals and addressing the same food safety practices,” Elias says. “We wanted to find a way to kind of mitigate both of those things, to help give consumers a sense of relative performance of restaurants within any geographic area and then also balance out what might be some small degree of inspector variability.”

Elias explains the scale distribution like this: “Within each zip code or geographic area, we’re ensuring that we want to be able to convey the top 50 percent of businesses, and they would fall into the ‘Excellent’ category. The next set of approximately 40 percent of businesses would be in the ‘Good’ category, and then about that lowest 10 percent would be in the ‘Okay’ category. The ‘Needs Improvement’ category [is] not on the curve. That’s very cut and dry: businesses closed in the past 12 months, temporarily to fix a serious issue, would fall into that category.”

Systematic Success?

Seattle-area restaurateurs were among those who gave feedback during the system’s development. Officials with the Seattle Restaurant Alliance seem to be optimistic about the new system’s potential.

“Seattle restaurants and the Washington Hospitality Association have been working with the health department on the grading system throughout the stakeholder process,” Jillian Henze, local communications manager for the organization, said in a statement on its behalf. “The health department has addressed many concerns with creative solutions. We will continue to support the health department as the program rolls out to provide feedback on adjustments that could best serve our communities and our restaurants.”

The system will officially make its appearance in 2017, although it may take until the next year for all restaurants to have placards in their windows because it’s being implemented gradually.

“We’ll start with one geographic region of the county, and each quarter of the year, we’re going to add another geographic region to it. By the end of 2017, all parts of the county will be receiving the rating system with each routine inspection,” Elias says. “It might be that some of those restaurants already had their routine inspections by that point, and so they might not actually get the sign in the window of that individual restaurant until early 2018.”

When the new system was presented at a Board of Health meeting on Nov. 17, 2016, Patty Hayes, the director of public health, praised King County officials for, “developing what I believe will become the new standard for the country.”

Although the system has a long way to go for that prediction to become a reality, Elias agrees that it could happen. “We’ve been out talking with other counties as we’ve been doing this and presenting some of this thinking and methodology at conferences,” Elias says. “We’re hearing a lot of interest from other counties that are wanting to explore it further, so I think that it is definitely possible.”

Note: This post was updated after Public Health revealed the final food safety rating system on January 17.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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