Smart as trees in Sault Ste. Marie: Restaurant grades come to Seattle

The Sault (pronounced Sue) is on my mind today.

barf-o-meter_-dec_-12-216x300-216x3001-216x300-1-216x300-216x300Lots of feedback about the Esposito brothers (Tony and Phil) who hail from Sault Ste. Marie (in Ontario, Canada) and, more importantly, most excellent graduate student Katie, who hails from the Sault, got an undergrad at Guelph, did her Masters research in New Zealand and got her degree from Kansas State.

So when JoNel Aleccia of The Seattle Times e-mailed me to get my take on the county’s proposed restaurant inspection disclosure system, I used it as an excuse to get back in touch with Katie.

It’s taken nearly two years, but King County restaurants will soon start posting storefront signs that display their health-inspection status at a glance, giving diners a new view into food safety.

Exactly what those signs will say, however, is still up to the public to decide.

Starting in January, officials with Public Health — Seattle & King County plan to roll out a long-anticipated public grading system that rates restaurants based on an aggregate score of four recent inspections.

Depending on the results, a restaurant may be ranked excellent, good, fair or needs improvement on signs that could feature smiley-face emoji in shades of green and yellow.

“It’s exciting,” said Becky Elias, Public Health food and facilities section manager. “We feel like this is thorough and evidence-based.”

Local diners can vote on six variations of the placards online by Thursday, Nov. 17.

Elias and her crew originally thought a restaurant-grading system could be in place by the start of 2015, but it took longer than anticipated to get it right, she said.

Local health officials overhauled the system that regularly sends 55 inspectors to review more than 11,000 permanent food businesses and an additional 3,000 temporary sites in King County.

With the help of Daniel E. Ho, a Stanford University law professor who has studied restaurant-rating programs extensively, they refined and standardized the way inspectors make decisions and then came up with placards to convey that information to the public.

Throughout the process, they sought out opinions from everyone involved, including restaurant owners and food-safety advocates. Such collaboration was appreciated, said Patrick Yearout, director of recruiting and training for Ivar’s restaurant company, which operates 25 sites in King County.

Food-safety advocates said they’re pleased that King County is unveiling a new ratings system, but they’re not enthusiastic about the smiley-face signs.

Sarah Schacht, 37, of Seattle, is a two-time victim of E. coli food poisoning who has been lobbying the county to help warn consumers about restaurants with unsatisfactory inspections. She’d prefer to see numeric scores on the new signs, not just emoji.

“If you look at these placard examples, in the end, the information you’re supposed to absorb and make a decision on comes down to the size of the smile on the smiley face,” she said. “I think the options are better than nothing, but they’re problematic.”

seattle-rest-inspect-disclose-nov-16Doug Powell, a former Kansas State University food scientist who runs the food-safety site, barfblog.com, said the proposed King County signs “all seem too busy.” If he had to choose, however, he’d choose options B or D, he said.

“At least they are asking people, which is good,” he added.

Katie and I e-mailed, and she said she preferred C, because it was clearly visible from distance, the colour is prominent, the universal symbol avoids language barriers and has better use of space on the card.

I like B and D because the gauge reminded me of something Katie created years ago while goofing around.

And this is my favorite Tragically Hip song, but no live versions of it.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2009. The use of restaurant inspection disclosure systems as a means of communicating food safety information. Journal of Foodservice 20: 287-297.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at foodservice establishments. Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing foodborne illness to foodservice. One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2011. Designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Journal of Food Protection 74(11): 1869-1874
.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from contaminated food or water each year, and up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food service facilities. The aim of restaurant inspections is to reduce foodborne outbreaks and enhance consumer confidence in food service. Inspection disclosure systems have been developed as tools for consumers and incentives for food service operators. Disclosure systems are common in developed countries but are inconsistently used, possibly because previous research has not determined the best format for disclosing inspection results. This study was conducted to develop a consistent, compelling, and trusted inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Existing international and national disclosure systems were evaluated. Two cards, a letter grade (A, B, C, or F) and a gauge (speedometer style), were designed to represent a restaurant’s inspection result and were provided to 371 premises in six districts for 3 months. Operators (n = 269) and consumers (n = 991) were interviewed to determine which card design best communicated inspection results. Less than half of the consumers noticed cards before entering the premises; these data indicated that the letter attracted more initial attention (78%) than the gauge (45%). Fifty-eight percent (38) of the operators with the gauge preferred the letter; and 79% (47) of the operators with letter preferred the letter. Eighty-eight percent (133) of the consumers in gauge districts preferred the letter, and 72% (161) of those in letter districts preferring the letter. Based on these data, the letter method was recommended for a national disclosure system for New Zealand.

Another Seattle restaurant fingered as new E. coli source, different from other one

JoNel Aleccia of The Seattle Times reports that for the second time in a week, King County health officials are investigating an outbreak of potentially dangerous E. coli food poisoning linked to a Mexican-style restaurant, but they say the incidents don’t appear related.

memos-mexican-foodAn outbreak of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli O157: H7 (STEC) sickened two people who ate at Memo’s Mexican Food in Seattle’s University District in August, officials with Public Health — Seattle & King County reported Wednesday.

Laboratory testing showed those illnesses were caused by the same strain of the bacteria.

But it’s different from the strain that has sickened 10 other people, including six who ate at the Matador restaurant in Ballard last month.

“These clusters do not appear related to each other,” according to a public health notice posted Wednesday.

An investigation on Monday revealed other factors that could have contributed to the outbreak at Memo’s, 4743 University Way N.E. Those included improper cooling, cold-holding, reheating of potentially hazardous food and the potential for cross-contamination. Because the violations were corrected on site, and there was not an ongoing risk, the restaurant was not closed. Inspectors will return in 14 days to ensure that the site remains safe.

3 children under 5 sick with shiga toxin E. coli in Wash. state

King County Public Health is investigating the cases of three children all under age 5 who have E. coli infections.

stec.e.coliTwo of the children had to be hospitalized with complications, including a type of kidney injury. The third is recovering at home.

Health officials don’t yet know whether the children have the same strain of E. coli and whether the cases are linked.

Public Health – Seattle & King County said it received the first report of illness on May 26, the second report on June 1 and the third on June 6.

6 sick with E. coli in Seatlle: Hipster food trucks hit food safety

King County Public Health is investigating six E. coli cases that appear to be linked to a food truck that visited farmers markets.

Los Chilangos“Through a few initial interviews with ill people, we determined that everyone who became sick had something in common – they ate food prepared by, a local food vendor called Los Chilangos,” Public Health staff said in a statement.

The department required the food truck to stop selling food.

A 4-year-old girl is one of those affected, and her mother said her daughter became sick after eating at Los Chilangos around August 8.

The food truck visited the Issaquah and Sammamish farmers markets.

Deanna Buder said her 4-year-old daughter started experiencing pain and swelling in her abdomen, and stopped eating. Tuesday is her seventh day at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

e.coli.foodtruck.seattleLos Chilangos serves food at seven farmers markets in King and Snohomish counties, operates two food trucks, and also caters events. Los Chilangos uses Eastside Commercial Kitchen, where they share space and equipment with about a dozen other food businesses.

The kitchen was told to stop producing food, as were the food trucks that used it.

“We are still investigating the source of the E. coli,” the Public Health statement said. “If we determine that a food contained the E. coli bacteria, we will try to trace it back to stores, suppliers, and even farms to address the root of the problem with corrective actions, if possible.”

King County Public Health released the key steps of their investigation:

  1. We [King Co. Public Health] interviewed people who got sick.

“At this time [Tuesday afternoon], six people have been infected with the same strain of E. coli (three have been hospitalized). When Public Health determines that anyone is sick from a serious foodborne illness like E. coli, we [King Co. Public Health] interview them to determine what may have caused their illness. We  [King Co. Public Health] do this to find the source of the outbreak and prevent others from getting infected. In this instance, through a few initial interviews with ill people, we [King Co. Public Health] determined that everyone who became sick had something in common – they ate food prepared by a local food vendor called Los Chilangos. Public Health took swift action and required Los Chilangos to cease operations.”

  1. We [King Co. Public Health] investigated a food business that was associated with the people who got sick.

“But we  [King Co. Public Health] didn’t stop there. Los Chilangos serves food at seven farmers markets in King and Snohomish Counties, operates two food trucks, and also caters events. Los Chilangos utilizes a shared kitchen space, called a commissary kitchen. The kitchen that they use is Eastside Commercial Kitchen, where they share space and equipment with about a dozen other food businesses.”

  1. We [King Co. Public Health] intervened at the specific site and operation.

“The condition of the commissary and the potential for cross contamination were deemed an imminent health hazard, and the health officer issued a cease and desist order to the commissary on Thursday, August 27. Additionally, all of the food vendors permitted by Public Health that use this kitchen were also told to cease operations. Recognizing that this lapse in operation hurts business, our team has worked diligently with these vendors to find new places for them to resume their work and remind them about important food safety measures.”

  1. Next steps: tracing the source

“As of today, the investigation isn’t over. We  [King Co. Public Health]  are still investigating the source of the E. coli.  If we determine that a food contained the E. coli bacteria, we will try to trace it back to stores, suppliers, and even farms to address the root of the problem with corrective actions, if possible.

But, it’s possible that the source of E. coli may never be determined. E coli is often linked to beef, but it can also be linked to produce, such as spinach and sprouts, along with a variety of other foods such as unpasteurized juices, raw milk, game meats, and other common foods.

For outbreaks such as this one, we [King Co. Public Health] continue to monitor the situation and look for other common factors among ill people. While we know Los Chilangos is linked, they may not be the only ones involved. For instance, the source of E. coli could be served by other vendors.

We [King Co. Public Health] are currently working with all of the businesses connected to this outbreak to make sure that they are not using any products that may have become contaminated and that they have food safety measures in place. This includes having the businesses address needed repairs to their equipment, providing education to their staff, and ensuring their operations are safe to open.

Though Los Chilangos has been linked to this outbreak, they deserve credit for their dutiful cooperation during our investigation. No food vendor wants to make people sick, and we know everyone is very concerned about the people who have become ill. We will be updating this blog as the picture becomes clearer.”

Signs in Seattle: Restaurant inspection disclosure

Dine Safe King County came out of Sarah Schacht’s public advocacy for posted restaurant inspection scores. Her successful petition to King County for posted inspection scores caused King County to start a stakeholder committee process to provide suggestions for restaurant inspection score design and a new rating system. At the end of months on the committee, Sarah was disappointed to find she was the only member of the public on the committee, and saw a need for public feedback on and testing of restaurant inspection scores and signs.

rest.inspec.grade.louisvilleReaching out to University of Washington’s Human Centered Design Department, Sarah recruited graduate students and undergrads in their senior year to leverage their education in user research to implement a usability study/user research study. WSU’s Prof. Susie Craig a specialist in public health, mentored the research team and reviewed their work.

King County, Washington, will implement restaurant inspection score signs in late 2015 to early 2016. This transparency and public health project will be a first in our region, but in other municipal areas, like Toronto, inspection score signs at restaurants have been around for over a decade. Some research suggests these signs bring down overall cases of food poisoning, by as much as 30%.

King County will implement scores by early 2016, with most input of sign design coming from restaurant owners and government employees. We are a group of UW students working to involve a variety of King County residents in the design process of this tool for public health, through the use of a usability study.

Questions or comments about this study? You can contact the team communications lead, Leilani Esther at [email protected].

Key Report Findings

Key findings from our research are:

  • An average rating isn’t easily understood and raised more questions than it answered.
  • Participants wanted to see the inspection scores and dates that went into determining the average.
  • Participants questioned the value of including older scores, particularly when considering staff turnover and changes in management and/or ownership.
  • Participants stressed that they were most interested in the most recent inspection score.
  • Participants felt that a rating system that used stars looked too much like customer ratings, or some kind of award for the restaurant. It was the least popular in our survey results and focus groups.
  • A pass/fail rating system didn’t provide enough information. Participants wanted to know how much a restaurant passed or failed by.

Participants highlighted the importance of dates regardless of the rating system; of particular importance to them was when the inspection took place and when the rating was posted.

Food hazards found at Seattle-area farmers markets

 Heading out to the farmer’s market Saturday morning for some tasty wares?

King County health officials (that’s the Seattle area) have found so many hazardous food practices at farmers markets this year, ranging from poor hand-washing to unsafe food temperatures, that they’re proposing a five-fold increase in permitting fees.

Vanessa Ho of Seattlepi.com reports that in 265 routine inspections of farmers markets this year, health officials found 252 violations, of which 189 were considered "red critical." The inspections covered an eight-month period of roughly 40 markets.

To deal with the number and severity of risks, Public Health – Seattle & King County has proposed hiking a market’s annual permitting fee from $100 to $502.

"On the one hand, it’s a big jump in cost," Chris Curtis, director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance in Seattle, said Friday.

"But on the other hand, I think we’re coming up with better compliance."