What's Being Done to Keep Restaurants Safe for Diners?

With a number of bacteria outbreaks at local eateries, is it safe to eat out in Seattle?

I’m standing on a corner in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood on a sunny afternoon, waiting for Chris Skilton, a health inspector and trained epidemiologist with the food and facilities program of Public Health–Seattle & King County.

In the wake of recent health scares like the E. coli outbreak at several Chipotle restaurants, I’ve arranged to shadow him on a few restaurant inspections to delve into the food-safety world and to help answer the question: Is it safe to eat out in Seattle?

Belltown, which used to be Skilton’s territory, currently is not assigned to a specific inspector. As a result, the place we’re about to pay a surprise visit to may not have had an inspection in a year, says Skilton. He’s almost right; the last inspection of it was in March 2015, although the health department’s goal is to visit every King County restaurant from one to four times annually. Why the lag? “We’re woefully understaffed,” Skilton candidly tells me, “but that’s about to change.”

He’s referring to the 12 inspectors who were recently hired: three for newly created positions and nine to replace people who have retired or left their jobs. This brings the staff total to 59, with 44 inspecting the county’s approximately 11,500 food establishments (a number that has remained stable for the past few years). The other 14 inspectors review architectural plans for new restaurants and lead foodborne-illness investigations.

Becky Elias, the new head of the county’s Public Health Food Protection Program, affirms the staff shortages and calls 2015 an “atypical year.” The Chipotle outbreaks, plus the salmonella outbreak tied to pork from Kapowsin Meats (a Washington-based slaughterhouse) and the E. coli outbreak linked to area food trucks and farmers’ markets, strained the organization, says Elias. Workloads shifted because of the increase in work needed for emergency response to foodborne illnesses. “There will be establishments that did not get the routine reinspections,” she says. “When there’s an imminent health outbreak like the Chipotle E. coli outbreak, we dedicate staff and resources to that health risk; those actions take priority over a repeat routine inspection.”

The new staff is arriving in the nick of time if inspection reports for Belltown, available online, are any indication. These records show that approximately 10 Belltown restaurants haven’t been inspected in a year or more, and some haven’t been reinspected despite 35 or more red violations at their last inspection, the numerical tipping point designed to trigger a follow-up. I also find at least a dozen other restaurants throughout the city that have gone a year or longer with no inspection.

Violations are color-coded red and blue, and receive a numerical value depending on their seriousness. Red violations are most likely to lead to foodborne illnesses. Blue violations are given mostly for maintenance and sanitation issues. For instance, inadequate hand washing and improper food temperatures get 25 red points apiece, because they represent the biggest risk for foodborne illnesses. (Only 10 percent of restaurants get more than 35 violations and require a routine reinspection.)

Fortunately, as the food Protection Program ups its staff to meet the increasing needs of both restaurant-inspection and foodborne-illness work, it’s also moving toward being more transparent in publicizing outbreaks. The Chipotle E. coli incident in particular—which began at the chain’s Capitol Hill location last July and was the first of many outbreaks of E. coli, norovirus and salmonella for the chain, affecting restaurants in 10 states—has been a sore spot in terms of media perception. The program followed protocol, conducting a thorough investigation of the restaurant chain and reporting the outbreak to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Seattle & King County health department, says spokesperson Hilary Karasz. But ultimately, no violations were found that would cause the bacteria to spread further, and there were no sick workers. In other words, the outbreak was over. Consequently, no press releases were issued and there was no report included on the health department’s website. The media saw this “as a failing, of hiding something,” says Karasz.

It’s standard procedure not to publicize an outbreak once it’s over. But that is changing. In addition to posting all restaurant inspection records online (the first health department in the country to do so in 2001), the department has launched a blog (publichealthinsider.com) where all foodborne outbreaks will be reported, even if they’re over, or if no safety violation has been linked to the food establishment in question.

“The reporting of foodborne illness makes me nervous because I see the value in advising, but not terrorizing, the public,” says Skilton. But his concerns aren’t shared by attorney Bill Marler of Marler Clark, a Seattle food-safety law firm that litigated for a Chipotle customer who was sickened in the July outbreak.

“The action for diners is ‘I’m not going to eat there anymore’ or ‘If I go there, I’m going to be a little more cautious about what I eat,’” says Marler. If the health department doesn’t give people complete information, the marketplace won’t work properly, he argues.

A new placarding system is another tool in the works that should buoy diners’ confidence in eating out. The system is designed to provide more information about how restaurants perform during inspections. The popular letter-grade system used by many counties tells diners very little beyond whether or not a restaurant has passed an inspection.

“Our stakeholders’ key recommendations on placards are not just whether or not the restaurant passed, but how they performed relative to other restaurants. Second: They want to know how well they performed over many inspections,” Elias says. The plan is to pilot the placard system later this year. Placards will appear in restaurant windows, and data will be available online.

Additionally, the department has teamed up with Stanford University to create a peer review model for inspectors. It will help maintain consistency during inspections and ensure that all restaurants get the same education. “In 10 counties across the state, because inspectors vary, the grades themselves were in no way predictive of how that restaurant would improve on the next inspection,” says Elias. Under this new plan, inspectors will share their thought processes so that areas of disagreement can be identified—and reconciled.

Skilton is on board with this, and excited about what he’s already learned by being paired with another inspector. “While no inspector would disagree that storing unpackaged raw meat above ready-to-eat food like salad is a red-code violation, there could be differing opinions regarding whether, say, vacuum-sealed raw meat above salad is a no-no,” he says.

While inspectors can learn from each other, educating restaurant owners and workers to help avert health risks is the core mission of the job, say Karasz and Elias. And it’s something that Skilton clearly does well. What I observe when I accompany him during an inspection is a friendly dialogue between him and the restaurant staff.

At one Belltown restaurant, Skilton sees a vacuum-sealed whole salmon in the refrigerator. “You thawing that?” he asks.

When the chef replies that he is, Skilton tells him the vacuum-sealed package must be slit open while thawing under refrigeration. If not, a deadly form of botulism can develop. The chef and owner are shocked. Skilton assures them it’s a little-known fact and it only applies to fish, not chicken or beef.

Most restaurants are like this one: Some issues are uncovered during inspections. “More than 50 percent of restaurants get at least one red violation,” says Elias. “It would worry me if those numbers were lower, because it would make me think our staff wasn’t catching mistakes.”

Even with restaurant inspections, the reality is that one in six people experiences a foodborne illness in the U.S. every year—although they may have acquired it at home or at work, not necessarily at a restaurant. Elias emphasizes that ultimately, we shouldn’t be afraid of food—whether at a restaurant or elsewhere. It’s comforting that even a food inspector seems to agree with that sentiment. As Skilton and I say our good-byes, he asks me if I’ve tried a new Vietnamese noodle shop that he’s gaga over, along with a deli and another restaurant I haven’t heard of.

Inspectors are foodies, too, and this one, at least, isn’t afraid of eating out. And that alone should be reassuring to the dining public.