/ Food & Drink, Health

Do your local restaurants meet food hygiene requirements?

food hygiene standards

Are you confident about the hygiene checks that take place in your local restaurants? We found that compliance with food hygiene rules can vary hugely, depending on where you live.

It’s easy to take for granted that hygiene checks take place in restaurants, cafés and shops selling food.

But with local authority resourcing under pressure, we looked at the data they submit to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on how they’re ensuring food businesses are meeting hygiene standards. Then we ranked them.

There was a lot of variation – as you can see in the local authority food hygiene enforcement map we created. For example, in 20 local authority areas, the chances of buying from a food business that isn’t meeting hygiene requirements was as high as one in three. In the lowest-rated ​local ​authority area – Hyndburn – this rose to nearly two in every three outlets.

Food hygiene enforcement shouldn’t be fudged

We’ve carried out this research now because there are a lot of challenges facing food law enforcement. So we want the FSA and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) to make sure there is a more robust system in place.

Food production and supply chains can be very complex, and when we leave the EU, we’ll also need to take on checks that are currently overseen by the European Commission, including more checks on imports.

The FSA and FSS are reviewing the system and starting to come up with proposals. This includes some positive steps, such as strengthening the checks before businesses can start to trade (the current registration system is more of a paper exercise).

They’re also making greater use of data to assess how companies are complying and focusing on third-party checks that businesses would pay for.

How to approach hygiene inspections

Our research shows that some local authorities are clearly struggling to keep on top of inspections and drive compliance. But overall, around 87% of businesses are complying.

There needs to be great caution about moving away from an independent system. Companies should be doing their own checks if they care about food safety, but that shouldn’t mean that they aren’t overseen by independent public authorities. There is a lot of specialism and expertise across the country. There is also a mix of businesses of varying complexity.

A much more strategic approach is therefore needed. This should include a greater role for the FSA and FSS in policing more complex and higher risk businesses, as well as sharing of expertise and resources at regional level.

How important do you think hygiene checks are? How would you feel if companies employed by businesses were doing these checks in place of local authorities? Would you have confidence in the hygiene rating (‘score on the door’) if they were?


I have just looked at the hygiene map from the link above, and it is extremely confusing.

Reading down the left hand side for an explanation, is the map rating the eating establishments or the Local Authorities?

‘Search The Map’ also doesn’t seem to work.

Wouldn’t encourage anyone to visit Scotland, would it? One thing’s interesting: in North Wales all the places have to have their scores on the window or door, and there are an extremely high number of eating places. Possibly competition or having to show the scores, but one factor seems to have produced very good ratings.

It is a legal requirement in Wales to show the ratings on the frontage of the establishment. In England the absence of a displayed rating tells me all I need to know.

It’s a legal requirement.

To clarify, Ian, is it a legal requirement in England to show the food hygiene ratings on the frontage? I did not think it was mandatory yet.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Sad to say I couldn’t find a regular fish & chip shop in Tooting, Duncan, the last time I was there three years ago. There was one near Tooting Bec Underground station which my mother-in-law patronised but the f&c was a sideline to a range of other comestibles.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

I got to know the area quite well over a number of years. I think the public library is still there – a charming Edwardian building – but it has been ‘modernised’ with an open-plan layout. My wife went to the big school in Franciscan Road – now a ‘professional development centre’ for the borough’s teaching staff. Everywhere changes.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Yes, but unfortunately even nostalgia’s not quite the same as it used to be.

When we eat out we should take it for granted that good hygiene and the correct storage and handling of food is observed. When premises are clearly in default they should be closed as a penalty for a fixed period – ostensibly to fix problems and have independent retraining that they pay for.

Funding routine inspections should not come out of our council tax but be self funding. Require all restaurants, cafes and takeaways to be licensed and pay an annual fee to support a proper inspection system.

I sense that at present the penalties are a quite inadequate deterrent.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Thanks Duncan. I think this is the report you are referring to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-40426228 I will try and find out more.

I have always been concerned about the ice supplied in bars and restaurants. I expect the tap from which the water is drawn would be the starting point for an investigation. If the ice is bought-in, pre-made from a supplier [like the bags of ice you can buy in a supermarket], then the ramifications of this go much further as other customers of the ice supplier could be affected. Hopefully the contamination levels are well below the danger point but, as Duncan says, some people are much more intolerant of infection than others.

There are various ways of producing ice for use in bars and restaurants. I would expect the best to be where the an ice-making machine or freezer is used and the water supply is permanently plumbed into the water main. Any method that involves pouring water into an ice-maker using a jug or filling an ice-cube pouch introduces contamination possibilities. In my experience the named coffee bars have high food hygiene scores – usually the top level 5.

One has to wonder: Have the environmental health inspectors missed something? Are the inspections not frequent enough? Is this a storm in a coffee cup? Does staff training focus on front-of-house presentation and not enough on basic hygiene discipline?

Iced coffee is something else – coffee is made and then chilled before ice is added. It should be served in a chilled glass. I am not sure why it has become popular as there must be some impairment of the coffee taste and flavour, or is a very strong bean used? Perhaps it’s cool.

I wonder how many coffee customers sanitise their water taps at home frequently and maintain the hygiene standards that would earn them a top score on their door.

I shall look forward after breakfast to learning what Wavechange can tell us about faecal coli contamination and its prevention.

The most recent ‘Watchdog’ programme (currently available on iPlayer) reports on a small investigation conducted for the programme. As Duncan has pointed out, faecal bacteria were found in ice. While there is a remote possibility that there could be a plumbing problem, it’s most likely that those handling the ice etc. have not been washing their hands after using the toilet. Some are indeed more susceptible than others.

A similar problem was reported last year when swabs were taken of table surfaces, and showed unpleasant bacteria. These can be removed by proper and regular cleaning, but you can pick up infections from door handles, taps, chair backs, contamination left by both staff and customers who don’t observe proper personal hygiene.

Ir always surprises me how many people who use a public toilet leave without washing their hands.

Yes, it’s not just the staff who can cause problems, but by far the greatest risk is from food and drink. It is important to clean anything that a child might put in their mouth. Every time I am in a waiting room, pub, etc. with children’s toys, I wonder how often they are cleaned.

It is important to clean anything that a child might put in their mouth.. Including their hands 🙂

I don’t like the Watchdog programme [too much dog and not enough watch in my opinion] so I don’t watch it. I read that the sample used was very small and that the details given were not very informative of the testing methodology or the proportion of coliform indicators found in the samples.

A customer sampling will not know how the ice was made or handled – a spoon or ice-shovel could have been used or the barista could have used their bare hands. The contamination could have been on the surface of the ice cubes or crushed ice or could have been encapsulated within it. This could just be another biased story produced for sensational purposes.

Once a TV crew and presenter have spent a day making a piece for a popular programme they are not going to can it if they can extract a morsel of prime-time exposure based on meagre and unscientific evidence and bash big brands with bogus reportage. Or should we be really worried? The important thing is that the coffee shops named must conduct a thorough review and reinforce personal hygiene and certificate-level food hygiene standards.

I absolutely hate Watchdog and rarely watch it unless some issue is discussed on Which? Conversation. Despite the superficial approach, it is seen by many people and I sometimes wonder if it would help to air some of the issues we talk about and never seem to make progress with. For example, you could demonstrate why it is potentially dangerous to use electrical goods with the wrong type of plug.

Doing ad hoc experiments is a valuable precursor to carrying out systematic tests. My approach would be to carry out more tests before publishing the results. The findings may be of limited value for statistical reasons but I believe that there is scientific evidence that further investigation is needed.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

80 Cents?!! It’ll be £2.50 over here I bet!

I recently had a long conversation with two environmental health officers, thanks to a chance meeting.

They would like to close down premises that have low ratings, but are not allowed to. They were very much in favour of the system in Wales, where it is mandatory to display food hygiene ratings and the public would be encouraged to avoid using businesses with low ratings.

I asked if poor record keeping was a significant factor poor ratings and was told that invariably there other serious problems.

Take-aways are a major problem.

From the Food Standards Agency, regarding “food law inspections and your business”:
“Taking action
When they think it is necessary, inspectors can take ‘enforcement action’, to protect the public. For example, they can:
inspect your records
take samples and photographs of food
write to you informally, asking you to put right any problems
detain or seize suspect foods
They can also serve you with a notice. There are three main types of notice:

‘Hygiene improvement notice’ or ‘food labelling improvement notice’ – sets out certain things that you must do to comply, if your business is breaking the law.
‘Hygiene emergency prohibition notice’ – forbids the use of certain processes, premises or equipment and must be confirmed by a court.
‘Remedial action notice’ – forbids the use of certain processes, premises or equipment, or imposes conditions on how a process is carried out. It’s similar to a hygiene emergency prohibition notice, but it does not need to be confirmed by a court. (This type of notice applies to approved establishments only in England, and can be used for any food establishment in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.)
It is a criminal offence not to comply with a notice once served.

Inspectors can also recommend a prosecution, in serious cases. If a prosecution is successful, the court may forbid you from using certain processes, premises or equipment, or you could be banned from managing a food business. It could also lead to a fine or imprisonment.”

I know what’s on the FSA website but I have been told on more than one occasion that there is considerable pressure not to close down businesses and, as we have discussed previously, some continue to trade with ratings of zero or one.

You may remember my posts about me being escorted out of a supermarket and being banned for a day after taking photos to send to the environmental health department showing the state of salad chillers in a large supermarket. The chillers looked fine but when panels were lifted out for maintenance, there was accumulated filth. My report resulted in a site meeting with the store manager, an environmental health officer and me. The EHO was told that the store was to closed for refurbishment and expansion and on that basis and the fact that food was not in direct contact with dirt, no action was taken. Planning permission was not granted and the store is still in use. Soon after I saw (after midnight) someone cleaning grey and green mould from other refrigeration units in the same store. Since then, the cleaning seems to have been effective and the units were replaced a year or two later. The store manager still looks the other way when I say hello.

I was providing the FSA information for any interested reader.

Indeed, FSA provides the letter of the law but the EHOs that have to enforce that often encounter strong local informal influence to behave differently.

It’s easier to take action against a small take-away than a large supermarket.

It would be interesting to hear where such influence has been applied to prevent closure in “serious cases”.

I can understand an educational approach to help food outlet owners (although they should have been trained in hygiene) but I would suggest that persistent offenders are the ones who should be closed down as they clearly are irresponsible.

I would be interested to know if others have taken action when they have been concerned about food safety in a restaurant or elsewhere where food is handled.

Before going to a restaurant we have not been to before I have usually checked its FH rating. If we eat out or attend functions it is usually in Norwich and the City Council operates a good inspection and reporting regime with full details recorded on its own website [not the FSA website used by many other authorities]. Norwich does close down establishments by serving the appropriate notices. The court has never refused so far as I am aware.

I understand the point Ian is making about influence and pressure on the EHO’s and I think there is certainly a degree of background pressure from the higher management and the political side to avoid official closures, however, I wonder if that concern isn’t overstated by EHO’s who think [without necessarily having any justification to do so] that they will be criticised if they propose taking ultimate enforcement action. I doubt if the decision lies in the hands of an individual EHO and would require the approval of the head of service or department. The political dimension then arises when that person consults – only informally, of course – the councillor to whom he or she reports in case it all blows up in the local community or media. Such action would only ever involve an establishment in the bottom rankings of the Food Hygiene scale of approval so it is unlikely to involve the premises of a major company or chain of premises but it could easily impinge on a small trader with a local following or from a cultural background to which the council will inevitably be sensitive. EHO’s faced with a potential serious food safety breach might, of course, feel that it reflects on them or their department for not having exercised sufficient diligence in their inspections and follow-ups so therefore wish to avoid making a public exhibition of their enforcement deficiencies.

We used to have a tradition of fearless enforcement and incorruptible local government officers in the UK but increasing politicisation has blurred the edges and perhaps we need more stringent enforcement. But, even in America, exercising the powers that local agencies have is not without its difficulties, especially in the smaller settlements and suburbs, because of the personal power and influence of the local political office-holders from state governors down to county, township and municipality levels with conflicts of interest.

I don’t have enough experience of eating out in America but I should imagine it is not unlike the situation in the UK where there is a wide range of establishments at various levels of compliance [and grades of excellence] and it is necessary to exercise some discrimination in where to go for peace of mind. I think in both countries it is usually the case that the laws are strict but the enforcement is inconsistent.

I would agree that all food establishments in England should display their FH ratings on the outside of the premises, but I take the view that if they don’t there must be a reason and the place is best avoided.

I did on one occasion visit a prominent Norwich restaurant before eating there in order to check whether all the recommendations of the EHO following an inspection had been implemented. The manager was very cooperative explaining that since the inspection there had been personnel changes and all non-conformities had since been rectified. She took me around, including into the kitchen and storage areas, to show me what changes had taken place and it all appeared satisfactory to me. We had dinner there a few days later and everything was very good.

I quoted Norwich as an example of good practice during my recent discussion with EHOs. Transparency is vital, in my view. The local press have given publicity when premises have been closed, often going into gory details. I did get a friend to find out why a well known establishment had been given a zero rating and it was because they had not allowed the inspectors to enter for some reason. When the inspection was done, a rating of 4 was given.

One of the things that’s not generally appreciated is that a lot depends on individual staff. Now, before everyone chips in with observations about how it’s the owner’s responsibility to train them I’ would point out that the small cafe owner who operates a cafe in a remote location will always experience significant difficulty in getting staff at all, let alone keeping them for any length of time. It only takes one new, inexperienced member of staff (talking 15 year-old girls, here) to do something daft at the precise moment an inspector visits and that’s a rating lost.

But most of the rating is gauged on record keeping: records of temperature, records of toilet cleaning, records of food rotation and so on. The inspectors often only take a cursory glance at the actual kitchens and can easily miss small things, so unless there’s a week-old decaying corpse of a giant rat sitting on a worktop next to the mayonnaise things can easily get missed.

They ensure the staff have a hand washing facility but they don’t check how it’s used or, indeed, if it has hot water. And they don’t check how the staff behave.

That last is, of course extremely difficult, but it is the biggest issue. What happens to your food when it’s out of sight you cannot know. And it’s the main reason why we never send food back in a restaurant. People are bacterial and often viral transports; the chef who has an annoying sniffle, the KP who can’t stop sneezing, the waiter whose hair is home to an entire army of microbial shock troops – these are all things which happen and which almost always escape the EHOs.

The only answer is being vigilant and using restaurants where the food is cooked in front of you. Otherwise. it’s a bit of a lottery…

Although I have no experience of commercial kitchens, I can certainly appreciate the difficulties in ensuring that food is safe to eat. Even if inspections are carried out conscientiously, they are just a snapshot and it’s possible that customers could accidentally be given unsafe food the next day. It’s difficult to know how to overcome these problems, but at least problems such as dirty kitchens, storage of cooked and uncooked foods together and general lack of organisation can be spotted.

I agree with you in general, Ian, but some authorities are more diligent in their inspections than others. I have read a large number of the Norwich inspection reports and it is clear that they do look at much more than just the paperwork and comment on all manner of unsatisfactory conditions in and about the premises but it is also obvious that unless they spend a day in a place their observations will be superficial.

One of the handicaps experienced by the inspectors seems to be the imperative these days to highlight a good point for every bad point found during an inspection. This could be regarded as an indication that the inspection was comprehensive but I am more inclined to believe that when they are looking for the good points they could be missing additional unsafe conditions.

Something I thought was unprofessional involved an inspector from South Norfolk Council who sent a very complimentary letter following an inspection to a highly-regarded local butcher who displayed it in the shop window. The butcher’s shop was very well run and the meat and other provisions were excellent; everyone in the town knew that and could see it was a very well-run premises with attention to hygiene given the highest priority [the wash basin was in full public view and was used between every serving and between handling cooked and uncooked meat]. I don’t understand why the EHO felt it necessary to elaborate on the official report and the highest level food hygiene rating displayed on the door. I think the inspections and follow-up should be conducted in a more arms-length manner as next time there might be something very serious to deal with and over-familiarity with the trader could prejudice the outcome.

I agree with your points, John. Inspections should be done independently and done with the minimum of dialogue to minimise the possibility of familiarity affecting the outcome. Highlighting good practice helps ensure that it will continue but it would be ridiculous to attempt to highlight good and bad points.

I very much support shops etc. using their food hygiene rating to promote their business and I still have a couple of business cards that I picked up when I last visited north Wales, advertising the five rating of the premises. My only reservation is that businesses that are downgraded could continue to display the previous rating in print and on websites. I discovered an example in St Annes and I had to exchange a few emails before the information was updated.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

This comment was removed at the request of the user

The Jack in the Box scandal was interesting, Duncan . It was caused by their staff being unable to cope with the massive demand for their popular Monster burger and rushing to cook the burgers, leaving some undercooked. Coupled to that was the company’s decidion to ignore the State laws which required burgers to be cooked to 155 °F (68 °C), the temperature necessary to completely kill E. coli.

But there was plenty of blame to go around. One of the children who died was a 17 month old following secondary contact transmission from another child sick with E. coli. The 18-month-old boy who infected Riley had spent two days in the daycare center before a clinical laboratory could return the positive test results for E. coli. The first boy’s mother suspected her son had E. coli but did not tell the daycare staff for fear that he would be sent home.

The case did cause big changes in the US food handling regulations, but this wasn’t the first E. coli O157:H7 outbreak resulting from undercooked patties. The bacterium had previously been identified in an outbreak of food poisoning in 1982 (traced to undercooked burgers sold by McDonald’s restaurants in Oregon and Michigan), and before the Jack in the Box incident there had been 22 documented outbreaks in the United States resulting in 35 deaths.

Perhaps worryingly, after the CDC had identified five slaughterhouses in the United States and one in Canada as “the likely sources of the contaminated lots of meat.” In February 1998, Foodmaker (owners of Jack in the Box) agreed to accept $58.5 million from nine beef suppliers to settle the lawsuit started in 1993.

Sadly, it seems it’s all about money and, even more sadly, it seems few in Government are proactive, preferring to wait until people die before action is taken.

E. coli O157:H7 is a very dangerous organism because it has a very low infectious dose, meaning that a ingesting a few bacteria could prove fatal.

Here is a recent Which? press release about regional differences in food hygiene: https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/pass-the-sick-bag-britains-worst-areas-for-food-hygiene-revealed-in-which-analysis/ This includes a link to an interactive map, which you may have seen before: https://consumerinsight.which.co.uk/maps/hygiene It shows significant differences in performance.

In Wales it is mandatory for food hygiene ratings to be displayed and last time I visited I saw food hygiene ratings being used to encourage visitors to use restaurants and pubs. I would like Which? to push for adoption of this system elsewhere.

While a rating of five (the highest rating) is almost always displayed, I cannot remember ever seeing a rating of 0, 1 or 2 on a door or a window. I know one venue that had been downgraded from a rating of 4 to 1 and when I did visit, the label had been removed from the door and not replaced. I always look up ratings before eating out. Ratings can be found here and there is a phone app: http://ratings.food.gov.uk