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Emojis show food safety ratings in King County

King County executive Dow Constantine presents West Seattle Fish House with an 'excellent' food safety rating.
Courtesy of King County
King County executive Dow Constantine presents West Seattle Fish House with an 'excellent' food safety rating.

People eating out in King County now have a new way to compare restaurants. King County Public Health began phasing in new food safety rating signs Tuesday.

Instead of a pass/fail system or traditional letter grades, you'll start to see emojis hanging in restaurant windows.

There are four categories a restaurant can fall into:

  • Excellent: Depicted by an open mouthed smile, this category indicates the restaurant has had no or few critical violations over the last four inspections.
  • Good: Depicted by a slightly smaller smile, this category indicates some critical violations over the past four inspections at the restaurant.
  • Okay: This sign has just a hint of a smile and it indicates many critical violations were found over the last four inspections.
  • Needs To Improve: A grimace marks this sign and shows the restaurant has either been shut down by King County public health in the past year or multiple inspections were needed.

But the new safety ratings are more than just window art.
They'll be based on results from four inspections instead of the standard one. This will allow the rating to better represent the restaurant's performance over time.

Restaurants will also be rated on a curve with other establishments in the same zip code.

[asset-images[{"caption": "King County's new food safety ratings", "fid": "132912", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201701/food-safety-ratings.PNG", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Public Health Seattle and King County "}]]Becky Elias, manager of the county's food safety program, said the new system will give consumers a more accurate picture of food safety.

"The combination of four inspections and the adjustment by ZIP code helps to take into account the variation that could be a new owner in the business, new workers in the business, a change in menu or a change in inspector."

Elias said the curve system is useful because people tend to dine in specific areas and the county heard from consumers that they want to be able to see how local restaurants compare.  

“Comparing all of those restaurants within a certain area to one another helps us to say to people, businesses in this excellent category are the top 50 percent of performing businesses in this area.”

Rating on a curve will also help account for differences in inspection styles, since inspectors are assigned by ZIP code, Elias said.

Additionally, inspectors will begin working in pairs to help standardize ratings.

Sarah Schacht is a food safety advocate. She’s survived E. coli twice.

She said seeing the new safety rating signs unveiled was a bittersweet moment for her. She applauds the county for posting ratings, but she's concerned about rating restaurants on a curve.

"What does this do in neighborhoods where we tend to see lower scores and lower food safety compliance? Do they, to the best of their ability, give the consumer an honest window into average performance of a restaurant?"

Diners can find information about all restaurant violations at the King County Public Health website. This was previously the only place consumers could find restaurant ratings.

Kate Walters can be reached at Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.

Year started with KUOW: 2015