When we grow up, we want to be just like Seattle and King County.
Those are fightin’ words around these parts, the kind every card-carrying member of the Tacoma-Pierce County defense league knows to avoid. Repeating them could subject an offender to a contemptuous eye roll, malevolent glare or worse.
But once in awhile, public policy leaders up north do something so sensible, so worthy of emulation, that we mavericks in the South Sound would do well to follow their lead.
Case in point: their transparent approach to sharing restaurant inspections, violations and closures, and their customer-friendly rating system for dining establishments.
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When we grow up, we want a food service safety net similar to the one created by the Seattle-King County public health department.
There, we dared to say it. Now let’s explain.
As recent News Tribune reports have shown, the Tacoma Pierce-County Health Department has a puzzling history of not telling the public when it shuts down a restaurant for multiple violations of food-handling rules.
No paper sign on the restaurant door. No press release. No advisory bulletin on the department’s website. Nothing.
Inexplicably, local health officials do less notification than their counterparts in neighboring King and Thurston counties.
They made an exception this month when they closed Vien Dong, a popular Vietnamese restaurant on South Yakima Avenue. The rare six-month shutdown, which followed more than a year of educational interventions and probationary inspections, was announced through a press release —but not until Vien Dong had been closed five days and the TNT published a story after an anonymous tip.
The department’s website resources aren’t as helpful as they should be, either. A search of Vien Dong in the online database turns up violation records going back to 2014. But to find out the restaurant was ordered to cease operations this month, you’d have to read the fine print.
Other closures don’t show up in the database at all. The Melting Pot, for example, was shuttered for 24 hours in late December after several reports of patrons getting sick at the upscale downtown Tacoma restaurant. News traveled not through health department channels, but through a crowd-sourced international safe-dining website, iwaspoisoned.com.
This information vacuum compares unfavorably to how restaurant enforcement actions are reported in Seattle-King County. There, the health department issues timely public notices and maintains an easy-to-find web page where restaurant shutdowns are listed, along with the date and time closed, the reason and the reopening status.
Seattle-King County also sends out closure alerts via an opt-in email list; nearly 5,000 people are currently signed up.
“The more information, the better,” an agency spokeswoman told TNT reporter Derrick Nunnally. “People do want this information.”
Why would people in Pierce County be any different? We’re home to a growing circle of foodies, plus a smorgasbord of couples, families and diners on a budget. People regularly seek new restaurant experiences that can be trusted for taste and affordability, but also cleanliness and safety.
On a positive note, Tacoma-Pierce County plans to launch an email alert service this summer. Health officials say they will consider other notification upgrades, as well, in consultation with hospitality industry representatives on an advisory panel.
What’s really needed is a paradigm shift: The department must commit to full transparency and be responsive to increasingly sophisticated consumers whose hunger for good information rivals their appetite for good food.
Again, Seattle-King County set a high bar with the restaurant rating system it started this year.
Establishments now receive one of four grades based on their inspection performance over time. The grade is denoted by a simple emoji emblem displayed in a restaurant window; a sad face means “needs to improve” and a happy face means “excellent,” with two steps between.
Think of it like the TripAdvisor decal that restaurateurs post at their entrances with pride. Except this symbolizes high standards of safe food preparation, not culinary prowess.
The rating system was designed the right way: by taking input from more than 100 restaurant owners, after holding meetings with food safety experts, people prone to foodborne illnesses and other stakeholders.
Tacoma-Pierce health officials should embark on their own notification reforms without delay. Health Board Chairman Rick Talbert told us this week he’s eager to get started. He wants to have a study session this summer, including robust public comment.
Talbert, incidentally, represents East Tacoma on the County Council and regards Vien Dong as a Lincoln District institution. The restaurant appealed its suspension and was told it could reopen as early as Friday if it met certain conditions.
“If anything, this conversation around Vien Dong has given us an opportunity for review — to find out what the public would like to see while balancing the needs of the restaurant community,” Talbert said.
“First and foremost, our priority is public health.”
He’s absolutely correct. But running a close second is public information, and local consumers have been served a meager diet for too long.