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Seattle-Area Restaurants Will Soon Get a New Grading System

"The county hasn't committed to a design of the placards, and that makes all the difference for consumers."

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New York restaurants display letter safety grades.
New York restaurants display letter safety grades.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

King County is one step closer to implementing a new rating system that would display health inspection scores in restaurant windows across the Seattle area. A series of meetings between city officials, restaurant owners, and public advocate Sarah Schacht have resulted in the framework for a pilot program set to roll out in 2015.

Schacht suffered from E. coli as a child and again as an adult, when she was hospitalized after eating in a Central District Ethiopian restaurant in 2013. She caught the government and media's attention after gathering signatures from 2,000 people via a petition to reform the King County Board of Health's procedures for assessing restaurants. She now serves on two committees exploring how to revise the county's restaurant risk classification systems.

But she's dubious of how King County is planning to roll out the new system. "Anybody in tech knows you don't launch before user testing. But King County's user testing would come after or during their launch. Not good," Schacht tells Eater. "I'm excited we have progress, but there's nothing definite. The county hasn't committed to a design of the placards, and that makes all the difference for consumers. I'm concerned they'll go with a color coded system, which the committee didn't want and is less transparent for consumers."

Instead of grades, Schacht is pushing for a 1 to 5 score system, with 1 being a failure, 3 "meeting standards," and 4 and 5 representing, "consistency, excellence, and showing a restaurant invested in safety."

In order to help King County best identify which method of reporting best works for diners, graduate students from the University of Washington are launching Dine Safe King County, a usability study with a report due in early February. Schacht is helping students crowd-fund the research, with more than $800 raised towards a $1,750 goal.

A number of cities including New York and Los Angeles have implemented letter grade systems. In Philadelphia, two websites recently launched to help diners navigate the city’s Health Department inspection data. And in Pittsburgh, members of the restaurant industry responded negatively to a proposed letter-based health grades, claiming that the system could perpetuate a "culture of fear."

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