King County Food Safety Rating System Earns a Fail

By Jon Miller Updated on April 9th, 2017

The State of Washington boasts an active Lean community of large corporations, small startups, local hospitals, non-profits, state and local government. Both the State and King County, where Seattle is located, have Lean departments staffed by professional continuous improvement staff. It would have been great if the design of King County’s food safety system had more input from their Lean thinkers.

In my view when it comes to safety of any kind, you don’t mess around with nuanced labels. There is go and there is no-go. Being generous, maybe a three-way red-yellow-green scheme of fail, pass with concerns, and pass. A safety system with three shades of green isn’t telling me the truth.

My family ate at a bakery in Seattle rated “GOOD”. The food in this establishment was excellent. The premises were clean. The service was fast and friendly. The prices were very reasonable. There was nothing that I could see to downgrade this place from “excellent” to “good”. Visiting the King County Food Safety website after my visit, I was horrified. The graphic and explanation of the four categories below are from that website.

The “GOOD” rating means there were “SOME red critical violations” over the last four inspection. How many are some? More than few, less than many, apparently. Based on King County’s criteria, this restaurant should have been labeled with a yellow smiley face, maybe with a slightly contrite-looking expression, not any shade of green.

The criteria of the rating system are

  • Needs to Improve: The restaurant was either closed by Public Health – Seattle & King County within the last year or the restaurant needed multiple return inspections to fix food safety practices.
  • Okay: The restaurant has had MANY red critical violations over the last four inspections.
  • Good: The restaurant has had SOME red critical violations over the last four inspections.
  • Excellent: The restaurant has had No or Few red critical violations over the last four inspections.

The OKAY criteria is NOT okay. If a restaurant has had “MANY” red critical violations, how is this not a bright red sad face?

The website also explains

A restaurant’s food safety rating will be determined by the average of red critical violation points from a restaurant’s last four routine inspections.

If I understand correctly, this mean that a restaurant that passes its first two inspections with zero red findings, but whose food safety worsens over the last two inspections, the consumer is told that the food safety level is “GOOD”? The rating is a blend of the risky reality of today and the safer reality of months ago? It’s dirty enough to make some people sick this month, but things were looking really good a couple of months ago, so on average it’s green.

According to the website, the rating system in on a curve. That’s an expression I haven’t heard since middle school. If memory serves, such ratings are not absolute values but based on where they fall on a bell curve of others who were rated. The website explains the rating is

how well a restaurant performs on food safety compared to restaurants nearby

This is in order to reduce subjectivity and variation between inspectors across different areas. That sounds fair to the restaurants being rated, except that in my point of view the purpose of food safety rating is to inform customers “it’s safe” or “it’s not safe” in absolute, not relative terms.

This pie chart was a bit alarming. Grading on the curve, 50% are excellent, 40% are good and 10% are just “OKAY”.

By definition, the top half of a population cannot be “excellent”. Excellence means “extremely good” or outstanding. The extremes of a continuum are its two ends, not the middle chunk. The extreme good, or excellence, lies at the top 5%- 10%. The King County Food Safety “excellent” rating is a mix from the very best to the barely better than average.

The “needs to improve” category is troubling for a three reasons.

First, every restaurant “needs to improve”. The doubts raised above about the nature of “excellence” strongly suggest that most of the “excellent” need to improve. Even restaurants with  perfect food safety records can improve. For example, they can to work on making perfect food safety easier to achieve and sustain.

Second, if the purpose of the food safety rating system is to keep diners safe, and the “needs to improve” is the lowest and worst rating, it must clearly signal “eat here at your own risk”. Instead it lulls us into a false sense of security with an “nearly okay” rating. Maybe grey is just an faded off-green? There is so much green on the poster.

Third, there six drafts of the Food Safety Rating table poster. It’s puzzling that 5 out of 6 versions included a “red” emoji for its lowest rating, but the system being rolled out is green-green-green-grey. Somebody on the planning committee knew red-yellow-green was the standard way of doing things. What happened?

The King County website informs us that he final design of the system was influenced by “3,500 responses”. I wonder how many were from restaurant owners and food preparers concerned about how a “red” would look on their window, and how many were from customers who wanted simple food safety transparency.

Per the website, approximately 34 food safety inspectors check on about 13,000 food service establishments and temporary food booths in King County. It’s not right that the output of their work is a poster implying “Safe, safer, safest!” I really wanted to rate the King County Food Safety Rating system as “needs to improve”, but can’t. For all of the reasons stated above, it earns a red, fail, : – ( rating.

The good news is that this system is just starting phase 2 of 4 phases. There is still time to improve. I’ll be happy to average out my ratings across all phases of the rollout.

  1. Dylan Schultz

    April 12, 2017 - 1:38 pm

    I totally agree with your assessment. These ratings were not designed to benefit the customer, they were designed to sugar coat a poor performing business with a confusing visual aid.

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