/ Food & Drink, Health

Are you winning the food hygiene postcode lottery?

A dirty plate with knife and fork

Our research has found that food hygiene has become something of a postcode lottery for diners. People are unknowingly taking risks with their health simply by choosing to eat out in the wrong area.

We’ve been crunching through tens of thousands of food hygiene ratings from the Food Standards Agency in more than 2,000 postcodes in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. And now we’re revealing the postcodes where bad ratings far outweigh the good.

All places that serve food are inspected and given a hygiene rating on a six point scale – zero being the worst and five the best. A rating of three is ‘generally satisfactory’.

The best and worst food hygiene ratings

Eateries inspected in the DA7 postcode in Bexley averaged a rating of just 2.6. In fact, almost half the premises inspected in this particular postcode area had a score of two or less. By contrast, Birmingham’s B35 postcode topped the table with a near-perfect average rating of 4.9.

The scores for big high-street chains were typically three or above – that is ‘generally satisfactory’ or better. But some chains had a greater proportion of branches with poor ratings than others.

For instance, 29% of Chicken Cottage branches, 26% of Dixy Chicken branches and 24% of Perfect Pizza branches inspected had ratings of three or less. In the restaurant category, one in five La Tasca outlets inspected had a rating less than ‘generally satisfactory’, while one in seven Little Chefs inspected had low ratings.

A number of convenience stores serving food were also rated – of those inspected, a fifth of Best In/One, Costcutter, Premier and Londis outlets were rated less than three.

However, some major chains received no poor scores at all, including Eat, Carluccio’s, Zizzi, Premier Inn and Marriot Hotels.

Do hygiene ratings affect where you eat?

In our survey, three quarters of you told us you’d avoid eating at places with a rating lower than three. But it’s not always easy to tell the rating of an eatery, as they aren’t obliged to publicly display their ratings.

At Which?, we think that any places serving food should display their hygiene score prominently – and 95% of people we surveyed agreed. At present, if eateries don’t display their score voluntarily, the only way to find out is by searching on the Food Standards Agency website.

Before carrying out this research, I have to admit I’d never really considered checking a restaurant’s hygiene rating before visiting. Do you check hygiene scores before you eat out? Do you think places that serve food should be obliged to display their hygiene ratings?


All the hygiene ratings I have seen on display are good, so it seems likely that poor ratings are not displayed.

I agree with Which? that it should be mandatory for every seller to display the current rating prominently. A large fine for failure to display the current rating prominently could help prevent the notices falling down, being covered up or put where they are less likely to be seen.

LRsunnyb says:
29 June 2013

I fully agree that food outlets and restaurants should be requred by law to display their hygiene rating. This could also serve to ensure that inspection is given more emphasis as kitchens would need to be re-inspected soon after a rating of less than 3 is given. A recent trawl of ratings in the Bournemouth area indicated that poor scores were often in Chinese or Indian restaurants/takeaways; it was a shock to find that a highly rated and favourite Chinese restaurant only had a score of 2. However, the inspection was carried out in March 2011, so I’m left wondering what the current status is.
I work in education where schools ‘requiring improvement’ are subject to a highly challenging and rapid process to ensure they reach the required standard. Does it not seem inconsitent – to say the least, that all schools are expected to be ‘good’ and in highly publicly accountable way, yet we give food health such a low priority and accountability?


I’ve just looked at the FSA website for places I eat at. Most haven’t been inspected for the best part of 2 years. Alot can change in that time. So from that point of view even the FSA website is a pointless waste of space.

Maybe they should check outlets every 3 months, that would give a better indication of how hygienic a place is.


Norwich City council has an excellent section on its website showing the ratings for all the premises in the city that serve food. It includes a link to the the full inspection report detailing any dangerous or unhygienic practices, any unhygienic accommodation, equipment or facilities, and any food safety non-compliances or failures and potential risks. It decribes the food safety management code of practice used by each establishment and gives recommendations for compliance or improvement. The report also identifies good practice in hygiene and food safety. The premises are listed and classified so that people can look at the entire list in grade ranking or look at sections of the list according to the type of establishment [eg take-away, Indian, public house, fish & chips, etc]. This form of reporting is a model and I believe local authorities that do not publish the results of their work in the same or an equivalent way should be asked to explain why they don’t. My own local district council merely provides a link to the FSA website which is nothing like as informative or indeed useful. We do not visit Norwich for dining all that often and so we don’t have much experience of the restaurants in the city centre; using the list has helped us to find the safest places to eat, avoid the worst, and try many of the independent establishments instead of relying on the well-run but somewhat repetitive major operators listed in the article.

Jacqueline Pye says:
22 May 2013

Recently have checked the restaurants we like. My favourite got a zero about 9 months ago, a 1 in January – ‘major improvements necessary’ – and I obtained the reports by email, but apparently no inspection since then so we no longer go there. Two other Chinese restaurants locally have poor ratings, and a Chinese restaurant & a Chinese takeaway have been in business for years but don’t appear on the food hygiene site at all. If there’s a rating below 3, and especially zero or 1, they should be inspected every month and given a new rating when appropriate.

Roger Hart says:
22 May 2013

I was very surprised when a friend told me that he had been to a Michelin one star restaurant, thoroughly enjoyed his meal, but found out when he got home, that it had been given a one star grading by the EHO. Michelin, apparently, pay no heed to food hygiene in their inspections & gradings.


Why don’t they close down eateries with a very poor score until they put improvements in place? They are a potential hazard to health.


They do close down some eateries, according to the nauseating TV programmes I have seen on the subject. It has to be pretty bad before this action is taken and not that good before organisations are allowed to resume business.

This is nothing new. My father was a government wages inspector in the 50s and saw what went on, even in upmarket restaurants. He was very reluctant to eat out for the rest of his life.

Brendan Collins says:
23 May 2013

Hi Alice I read your article with interest, I have written a paper on similar topic which I am trying to get published as a journal article, I looked at food hygiene scores by deprivation, type of premises and by local authority, see below;


jml says:
23 May 2013

Having just looked at the best and worst hygiene scores by area I note that Croydon is rated as third from bottom. In fact the post code, SE25, relates to the South Norwood area which has a large number of chicken shops and fast food outlets about which the council has already shown concern. Central Croydon has a large restaurant quarter and would have probably scored differently. My point is, that it would be more helpful to name the area surveyed rather that use the post code which many people will not recognise. They will merely note ‘Croydon’ and add it to all the other negative things the media like to throw our way.


We used the Local Authority area as people were more likely to recognise where those were. For instance, if you don’t live in the south you might not know where South Norwood is. It’s also because postcode areas can straddle more than one geographic area. However, it is an interesting point so thanks for the feedback – I’ll bear that in mind in the future.

David says:
23 May 2013

I have just read the full article in the latest Which? magazine on which this one is based. In my opinion, the article is superficial and fails to deal with some key issues. There is no mention, for example, of what could be one of the principal reasons for geographical variations in the ratings: the differing ways in which environmental health officers interpret the national code. Although it would be difficult to prove, I have suspected for a long time that some environmental health departments are put under pressure to go easy on food establishments in areas, such as seaside towns, which rely heavly on tourist income. I know of a case where a hotel kitchen employee was told by one health officer not to divulge to anyone that she had tested positively for a health-threatening virus because of the damage it could do the hotel’s reputation.

The article’s ‘expert view’ is also very limited in that it is concerned solely with the question of legal redress should you be unfortunate enough to contract food poisoning. The need for evidence is briefly referred to but there is no mention of the Catch 22 situation associated with obtaining it. A relative and a friend had both been very ill all night after eating together at a restaurant the previous evening. When recovered sufficiently to phone the local environmental health office they were told that nothing could be done until they had provided their GPs with fecal samples and that this had to be done immediately. It was not possible to get a GP appointment for three days by which time it was considered too late. Many GP surgeries also discourage people with stomach upsets from attending in case they are infectious. They were also told by the environmental health officer that their bout of illness was unlikely to be food poisoning because (a) this “can take two weeks to develop”, and (b) the fact that they were both ill at the same time was more indicative of a virus (admittedly, at the time, there were many cases of the novovirus nationally). If this sort of advice is common, then the number of food poisoning cases reported each year must be the tip of the iceberg.

It is these sorts of issues that I would like to see Which? coming to grips with. In the meantime, I would support the mandatory prominent display of the food hygiene ratings. Although the system is flawed, it is better than none at all and those few remaining local authorities that refuse to take part in the scheme – Rutland, Greenwich and Tendring – should continue to be shamed and their food establishments boycotted wherever possibe. I also wholeheartedly agree with John Ward’s coment on this page about the exemplary inspection and reporting regime operated by Norwich City Council. I am convinced that it has resulted in pushing up food hygiene standards in the city to a level that is far higher than nearby authorities some of whom have shown a pronounced reluctance to participate more than minimally in any scheme at all.


Thanks for your feedback on the article David – points noted. As you saw the article focuses on the variations in the data – different brands and different locations. It was also a way of raising the issues about how hard it can be to work out if somewhere has a poor food hygiene rating.