New food safety ratings speak a universal language: emoji

Over the next several months, this emoji based rating system will begin popping up in restaurant windows from Lake Forrest Park to South Park. (Image via Seattle & King County Public Health)
Over the next several months, this emoji based rating system will begin popping up in restaurant windows from Lake Forrest Park to South Park. (Image via Seattle & King County Public Health)

Today King County Public Health unveiled new system informing consumers whether local restaurants are safe or not. And taking a cue from the internet era, these new signs are going to be in a truly universal language: emojis.

The new system is designed to make it easier for all King County residents to understand a restaurant’s safety rating.

According to Community Engagement and Outreach Manager Damarys Espinoza, the use of emojis is specifically designed to make a restaurant’s standing clearer, no matter what language you speak. That’s a pretty important development for a community where, as of 2010, over 21% of residents spoke a language other than English at home.

The new rating system will have four different ratings: Excellent, Good, Okay, and Needs to Improve, with emojis and colors that go along with each rating. Their scores are based on an average of a restaurant’s last four food safety inspections, if they passed their most recent inspection, and on a curve that compares safety performance to other restaurants in the area.

Seattle & King County Public Health released this infographic explaining the new system on Tuesday, January 17th, 2017.

This new health sign initiative has been in progress since 2013, and was built up and modified from over 3,800 survey responses from the community and restaurant owners all over Seattle.

“We feel good about the transparency these changes can bring about,” said Eric Tanaka of the Seattle Health Alliance, an advocacy group for Seattle restaurateurs. Tanaka, who is also a partner in the Tom Douglas restaurants empire, says that that the new emoji system is fair to restaurant owners, public safety officials, and to consumers.

While the group promises to continue to advocate for restaurateurs if there are any problems with the system, they say that their feedback during the process of designing the new system was “thoughtfully considered.”

Because restaurants need to be inspected at least one to three times a year under the new system, some will not have their signs ready until the end of the year. According to Seattle & King County Public Health, the new signs are going to roll out slowly over the course of 2017, first starting out in restaurants in north Seattle, mostly concentrated in Shoreline and Lake Forest Park. It’s worth noting that these areas tend to have more English language speakers than populations south of I-90, where a picture-based rating system would arguably be more useful.

As of publication, Seattle & King County Public Health had not responded to our inquiries about the scheduled roll-out of the new rating system, but KOMO’s Steven McCarron, reported that the entirety of Seattle should be covered by the new rating system by April 2017.

This post has been updated to include quotes from Eric Tanaka of the Seattle Health Alliance.

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