SEATTLE – After being infected with E.coli for the second time in her life, a Seattle woman wants to make restaurant inspection reports in Washington as public as possible, modeling efforts in New York and California.
Sarah Schacht likes what is happening in San Francisco, where health scores and violations for every restaurant are now posted on the popular website Yelp.
She also likes the approach in New York and some other major cities, where inspection grades of “A,” “B” and “C” are on display in restaurant windows.
“That’s immediately useful,” she said. “It’s intuitive, it tells customers what they need to know just by walking by.”
Schacht is motivated by her history with E.coli, a dangerous, potentially deadly foodborne illness. Schacht was 13 years old when she and her family were among the hundreds of people sickened by an E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993.
Schacht was infected again this February and is now suing the Central District restaurant that she believes is responsible.
Food-safety attorney Bill Marler represented Schacht in both cases.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had a case of a sort-of repeat customer,” Marler said.
Schacht and another woman have filed a lawsuit against Ambassel Ethiopian Restaurant. Schacht claims that E. coli-tainted food eaten there in February made her so sick, she ended up in a hospital emergency room. Her stomach swelled so much, she appeared pregnant.
“I was in so much pain that I just had these waves of pain that would come up for 20 to 40 minutes,” she said.
King County health inspectors closed the restaurant for two weeks in March after finding several violations. The county believes the restaurant was linked to three confirmed E. coli cases.
The restaurant has since reopened with a new name and has passed follow-up inspections with no further violations. In court papers filed this month, the restaurant denied causing any E. coli cases, noting that samples taken by the health department in March turned up negative for E. coli.
For Schacht, this issue goes beyond the lawsuit.
“I don’t feel like I’m somehow cursed to get E. coli,” she said. “It’s just symptomatic of the kind of world we live in and the types of challenges we have around foodborne illness.”
Before dining out in February, Schacht did not know that Ambassel had earned “unsatisfactory” marks on five out of six previous health inspections.
“For me, it would’ve raised some questions and perhaps would’ve influenced the restaurant I would’ve gone to that night,” she said.
Those restaurant inspections are readily available on the King County website for anyone who seeks them out. But Schacht, who is an expert in open government, feels the information is not totally intuitive or easy to understand. She feels users could be confused by the point system because high scores are bad.
“The information is pretty dense and it’s not very user-friendly,” she said.
That is why she prefers the more public approaches in New York and San Francisco.
“This brings the information to you,” she said.
It might also provide more incentive for restaurants to perform well. In New York, the city said salmonella cases dropped 14 percent in 2011 after implementing the grades-in-windows system.
King County changes?
Could any of those changes happen in King County?
“There are certainly opportunities for improvement,” said Mark Rowe, environmental health section manager for King County Public Health.
The county plans to review its website this year, and Rowe said he would be open to considering alternatives. If Yelp approached the county, he would entertain the idea.
“I want to make sure our data is out there, but I also want to make sure it’s presented in a useable fashion,” Rowe said.
Some restaurants in San Francisco have already made complaints about the Yelp changes, the city’s health department told KING 5. The Yelp site lists violations, but it does not say when those violations have been corrected.
“This is still [in] early days and we look forward to getting feedback from the industry and city governments as we continue to improve the standard and how much information it can display,” a Yelp spokesperson told KING 5.
Some New York restaurant owners have also expressed frustration with their system, calling it unfair because grading is inconsistent from inspector to inspector.
Ethan Stowell, a well-known Seattle chef, said the most important thing is to make sure customers feel comfortable.
“They can walk up to the door, they see a score and there and they go, ‘OK, I’m feeling good here,’” Stowell said.
As for Yelp, he would want to make sure the posted scores are truly up-to-date.
“If the score is 90 points out of 100, and it’s on there for six months because you can’t get it updated, that’s tough for business,” he said.
Inspection websites and apps
King County does already supply inspection data to web designers who make their own sites and apps. Two years ago, a designer named Becker created dinegerous.com, which links restaurant inspection reports with Google Maps.
“I personally like this map and I use it,” Becker said. “It has actually changed where I eat in a couple locations.”
But he realizes that some people do not want to know inspection information before dining out. For them, ignorance is bliss.
If customers are going to look up inspection reports, experts recommend looking beyond the latest score. They should look at the restaurant’s inspection history.
“These are snapshots in time, but the trend actually helps to tell a greater part of the story,” said King County’s Rowe.
Marler, an attorney who has become an expert in food safety, agrees.
“Somebody could get an ‘A’ tomorrow and a week from now cause a foodborne illness outbreak.”
Yelp plans to post health scores for New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia in the near future. As of right now, Seattle is not on the list.