Seattle-King County Public Health Inspectors spent two days checking and even changing posted safety ratings at dozens of restaurants, after KIRO-7 notified them about discrepancies in the placards the restaurants are legally obligated to display.
With a glance, the facial expressions on the little emojis posted on the windows of King County restaurants are supposed to speak volumes about how safe you are eating there.
"These (signs) make me nervous, but I'd rather see them," said Wade Crookham, who makes his dining decisions based on the health department's food safety ratings.
"I survived a nasty bout with food poisoning I got in a restaurant, said Crookham. "First you're afraid you're going to die, then you're afraid you're not going to die! It's is terrible, like the worst flu times 10!"
The Seattle-King County Public Health safety ratings are designed to help everyone be aware of restaurant inspection results, so they can avoid food-borne illness.
But by checking into a few of the rated restaurants in the Seattle area, KIRO-7 discovered some of the ratings seen in the window were not be the restaurant's actual score posted on the Seattle-King County Public Health website.
The lowest score a restaurant can get and still stay open reads "Needs to Improve," with an expressionless emoji face. The rating means a restaurant was either shut down by health inspectors within the last year or it required multiple return inspections to fix food safety practices.
But the first restaurant KIRO-7 checked in the "Needs to Improve" listing on Public Health's website had an "Okay" rating posted in the window. Off-camera, the manager of "Local Pho" said the sign in the window was the sign health inspectors gave them.
KIRO-7 noticed the same thing going on at the next restaurant they checked. The posted placard read "Okay," while the website indicated the place "Needs to Improve.".
One restaurant on the "Needs to Improve" list actually had a placard that read "Good."
Manna Deli and Teriyaki's owner invited KIRO-7 into his kitchen to see just how clean and careful his staff and equipment is.
He also said the "Good" sign in his window was posted by health inspectors.
KIRO-7 checked all 41 restaurants Public Health flagged online as "Needs to Improve," and seven of them had the wrong placard. Two displayed no placard at all.
KIRO-7 asked Public Health officials about the issue. Ngozi Oleru, division director of the Environmental Health Division for Public Health Seattle and King County said health inspectors took immediate action, and quickly fixed the issue.
"I do want to thank (KIRO-7) for bringing this to our attention because the public is our ears and eyes out there," she said, adding that the rating system is still relatively new, and it still has some flaws which are being worked out as they find them.
"Our inspectors went to every place that should "Need to Improve" and checked every sign," she said. "Those particular restaurants that did not have the right sign up have been reposted with the right sign. They have all been reposted."
KIRO-7 asked Oleru if health inspectors had issued the wrong signs, or if restaurants were giving themselves an upgrade. Oleru says that's still unclear. "We are committed to really finding out how this happened," she said.
Carol Pham owns the popular Pho Viet Anh on lower Queen Anne. Carol's loyal customers pack the tiny place every day for her pho. On the website, Public Health lists the restaurant as "Needs to Improve" the sign outside said "OK," but loyal customers like Bryan Brown -- an international executive chef himself --
don't seem to care, because they trust Pham and the staff implicitly.
"A sign wouldn't dissuade me from coming in," said Brown. "Especially if I already know the quality of the food and the goodness of the service."
Pham says health inspectors gave her a bad rating when they surprised her during an extremely busy night last July. "When I have a problem, I fix it right away," she said.
Food safety advocate Sarah Schacht says if an accurate safety rating system had existed here four years ago, it could have saved her a near-death experience.
"I got sick at a restaurant in Seattle that had failed five out of six restaurant inspections and was in the middle of a month-long e-Coli outbreak, but it was rated the top for its cuisine category in Seattle on Yelp," she said.
Schacht was pushing for an accurate safety rating system for years--because she was part of a sickening statistic. One out of six Americans get food-borne illness every year," she said. "One out of 29 end up in the hospital, over 3,000 Americans die of food-borne illness every year."
She says other cities have noted a 30 percent decline in food-borne illness rates with accurately posted restaurant scores..but she says there's just one crucial catch: "The scores have to be accurate, and they have to be posted," she said.
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