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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

E. coli Victims Steps Up to Prevent Next Outbreak

Linda Thomas (a.k.a. “the news chick”) told a story that make a lawyer very proud of a client – “E. coli victim pushes to improve King County restaurant reports.”

After being infected with E. coli for the second time in her life, a Seattle woman pushes for changes in King County restaurant inspection reports.

Sarah Schacht was a client of mine 20 years ago in the infamous 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E. coli Outbreak.  Crazily, E. coli struck Sarah again after eating at an Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle earlier this year.  She and two other young women spent time in different local hospitals.

The restaurant has no insurance and little, if any assets.  Sarah, however, has found a passion.  Here is the story that Linda told tonight on local TV:

“I found the restaurant through Yelp. It had a four-star rating. It had some great reviews. I had no idea that on King County’s website – buried within their website – were health inspections that were increasingly poor,” she says.

King County health inspectors closed the restaurant for two weeks in March after finding several violations. The county believes the restaurant was linked to three confirmed E. coli cases.

The restaurant has since reopened with a new name and has passed follow-up inspections with no further violations.

“Once I got E. coli and experienced that particular hell, I started looking at inspection ratings,” says Schacht, who is now an advocate for open government records.

King County’s restaurant inspection website is hard to navigate and interpret, she says, and has a few “quirks” that could be dangerous.

If a business name is different from the name on a business registration license it won’t show up on any inspection site, for example. The county also uses a number system, which she says is not intuitive.

What does it mean if a restaurant scores a 93? If that’s out of 100 percent, it might seem like a decent rating.

“No, actually the goal in King County is to get zero points,” she says. “So you could have a 63, unsatisfactory rating with a bunch of blue notes under it and one red, and you’re looking at this thinking, ‘What does this mean? What does a risk category 3 mean?’”

Schacht has launched a petition that asks the county health department to streamline the restaurant health inspection system. One suggestion is to make it more user friendly with grades of “A,” “B” and “C.”

In some cities, like New York, those ratings are on display in restaurant windows. She’d like to see a similar system here.

“These ratings should be posted publicly near the entrance of all restaurants, bars, cafes, and eateries. In addition, these ratings should be made available through open data, allowing websites like Yelp to post restaurant inspection ratings in their websites and apps,” she says.

“That way when you quickly look for a restaurant in your area, you can see how safe it is along with their menu and customer reviews.”

A couple of Metro King County Council members support the idea, but it’s not known how much a change in the way restaurant inspections are reported would cost.

The King County government website is in the process of getting a much-needed upgrade. It hasn’t been changed in more than a decade.

Schacht hopes a new system can be integrated with the upgrade. Beyond being more useful for consumers, she estimates the change would reduce food poisoning hospitalization rates by 14 percent, based on what’s happened in New York.

Good for Sarah.