Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Survey respondents weigh in on restaurant health grading systems

Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Survey respondents weigh in on restaurant health grading systems https://wahospitality.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/report-card-300x198.jpg

By Paul Schlienz

A, B, C, D; 0 to 100; or green, yellow or red, it means the same thing. Restaurant grading systems, based on health inspection scores, are proliferating.

Here, in Washington, King County health officials agreed, in December 2014, to launch a new restaurant grading system that allows guests to get view a restaurant’s inspection status when they walk through the door. The system will be operational by late 2015 or early 2016.

The idea is simple enough: Instead of investing time and energy into the county health department’s complicated website, patrons of King County’s 12,000 restaurants and food trucks will be greeted by storefront signs that will tell, at a glance, how safe it is to eat a particular restaurant.

“We really want to respond to the public desire for this kind of information,” Becky Elias, food and facilities section manager for Public Health — Seattle & King County, told the Seattle Times. “The finish line is on the horizon.”

The push to develop a grading system, in King County, was spurred by Sarah Schacht, an activist who suffered E. coli food poisoning twice – once as a child, in 1993, and as an adult, in 2013, when she ate food at a Seattle restaurant with a history of unsatisfactory health ratings.

“If I had seen [a health grading] placard, I never would have gone in,” Schacht told the Seattle Times.

Restaurant grading systems are, however, no panacea. According to a University of Washington survey commissioned by Schacht, communicating the necessary amount of information on a simple placard is not easy. As a result, many consumers are confused and dissatisfied with restaurant grading information as presented.

Among the survey’s findings, respondents valued a restaurant’s most recent inspection score more than past scores. Pass-fail systems were unpopular, and participants felt star-rating systems would be confused with food reviews.

“We thought the average scores would be interesting to people,” Will Richey, one of the survey’s UW researchers, told Food Safety News. “But in both focus groups, people brought up the fact that the restaurant industry has such a high turnover with workers and managers that they’re most interested in seeing the most recent score.”

Participants in the survey also felt that several of the common restaurant grading systems lacked informational depth. They wanted to see inspection dates and individual inspection scores that factored into average ratings. Additionally, 57 percent of those surveyed said they had never even attempted to look up restaurant inspection scores

There are, indeed, a wide variety of restaurant health grading systems in use. New York City uses letter grades. Since 2002, Toronto has used a color-coded system of green for pass, yellow for conditional pass and red for closed. Norwalk, Conn., uses lighthouses – a top rating is three lighthouses, followed by two in the mid-range while one lighthouse is the lowest grade. There are also grading systems that use stars, while in Denmark, restaurants are graded by smiley faces.

“It’s so important to get it right because we know these placarding systems have a big impact on the business and consumers,” Hilary Karasz, the King County health department’s communications officer, told Food Safety News.

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