SEATTLE - It felt like someone was stabbing her gut; a pain that ripped through her stomach. E coli bacteria had infected her body after eating at an Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle's Central District.
“I had internal bleeding and stomach cramps that were debilitating,” said Sarah Schaht, a longtime Seattle resident.
Ambassel Ethiopian Restaurant was closed down by King County health inspectors last year. But the owners have since reopened with a new name: Laco Melza.
Schaht chose the Ethiopian restaurant because customers on Yelp gave it nearly four stars. What she didn't know was the restaurant had failed six health inspections since 2010 and had one of the worst inspection scores of any Seattle restaurant last year.
Among the violations on March 6:
-Ready-to-eat food surfaces were being used to prepare raw meat.
-Workers weren't washing their hands.
-There were insects and rodents in the restaurant.
Inspectors also noted there was "potential food contamination." And they were right; health officials say at least two people were poisoned by E coli bacteria during a three week period, after eating at the restaurant.
Schaht is now suing the owners and is on a crusade to make it easier for people to know if the restaurants they're going to are safe. She says King County’s restaurant grading system is confusing.
"You have to be an expert to understand the scoring system," said Schaht, because there are “red scores, blue scores, unsatisfactory, satisfactory."
Schaht has started a petition to pressure King County health officials to adopt a simple letter grade system, in which restaurants are required to post an A, B, C or F grade in their front window so diners know how the establishment performed on its latest inspection. Cities in nine states have letter grade requirements, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. After going to the letter grade system in 2010, New York City’s Department of Health reported a 14 percent decline in salmonella cases in the first 18 months.
In L.A. County there's been a 20 percent drop in the number of people hospitalized with food-related illnesses.
Seattle foodborne illness attorney Bill Marler says diners are at risk if King County doesn't make its health inspection scores easy to find and easy to understand.
"Consumers can vote with their pocket book,” said Marler. “When you have less information, the public makes wrong choices, because they don't have the adequate information to make the correct ones."
KIRO 7 took the data from other cities to officials at Publich Health--Seattle & King County to ask why they’ve opposed switching to a letter grade system. But they refused our requests for an interview.
Instead, we were given a statement that said the health department is currently looking into the letter grade system, after 1,768 people signed Schaht’s petition.
Here’s the statement from Mark Rowe, King County’s environmental health section manager:
"There are certainly pros and cons to using such a system and we are doing our research on the practice of restaurant performance reporting at this time...It would be premature for us to go into any more detail than this until we know more."
One of the negatives health officials hear about the letter grade system is that some restaurant owners think it’s unfair, that a bad grade can damage a restaurant's reputation.
But Ethan Stowell, who owns several high-end restaurants like, Staple & Fancy in Ballard, says customers deserve to know what restaurants are doing well and what ones are putting them at risk.
"If it's something that's shown to work, why not?” Stowell said. “There's no reason not to."
One reason many restaurant owners are starting to support the A, B, C system is money. One California study found restaurants with an A grade saw a 5 percent increase in revenue.
Schaht says King County restaurants that follow health code laws should get the credit they deserve.
"They're not being rewarded for the investment they're making in the safety in their restaurants,” she said. “They're competing with restaurants that are not complying with safety regulations."
Here are four of the Seattle restaurants with the worst health inspection scores so far in 2014:
Saigon Boat Café
2632 Alki Ave SW
ChuMinh Tofu & Veggie Deli
1043 S. Jackson St.
12333 Lake City Way NE
Anns Teriyaki Restaurant
2246 NW Market Street