/ 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.

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.

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.

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.

Mr Smith says:
25 May 2013

Most regulators are facing pressures not to burden business and in particular closing them down is an extreme step – so you can be assured it is not a step to be taken lightly and probably means there are more places open than probably should be.

Unfortunately with all the budget cuts the number of inspections being done is decreasing big time. I don’t work in an EH dept but I do work in a Trading Standards dept responsible for food labelling issues. Our visits are going down every year as we have less staff than we did before.

ROY DEAN says:
25 May 2013

I recently complained to Stratford upon Avon District Council Environmental Health Officers about the dirty and insanitary conditions in the rear yard of a public house, which housed open refuse containers and off which yard were walk in freezers, refrigerators and dry goods stores. The EHO visited, but in spite of confirming these conditions, informed me that the 5 star score for food hygiene would be maintained under the terms of the FSA Code of Practice. I was told that a full inspection ( that is, of all parts of the premises ) was necessary before the premises could be downgraded. As the EHO checked the rear yard only, the top score would be maintained!! This state of affairs is ludicrous.

All very tick-box and dependent on how the particular EHO reads and understands the document. The same for the chef/or whoever deals with the paperwork at the restaurant.
Forms in general are often really poorly written nowadays. You will also often find different ones arrive in the post to the ones which are online (which are constantly changing).

Most important is that establishments are visited regularly and that those who have really poor hygiene are closed down until changes are made. Only if regularly inspected too cosy a relationship could be maintained and that is another great problem.

We mustn’t be duped by ratings to follow or not follow our gut instinct 🙂 !

David says:
29 May 2013

Very interesting report and thank you for this .

However, you have POWYS with HR3 postcode.

HR (3) is Herefordshire and not Powys.

Please can you clarify – thanks

David says:
29 May 2013

I have checked out the Post Code for HR3 and this covers a very small part of Powys.

That area being the one around Hay-on-Wye, Clyro and Glasbury.
I think you should make this clear…Powys is a very large county but the impression is the whole of the county and not one very small part and a Postal Code which also covers (most of) Herefordshire.

Perhaps you should say HEREFORD and not POWYS and add a link for Postal Code Map so your readers can pinpoint the areas.

Rather misleading.

John says:
30 May 2013

I own a fish and chip takeaway.

The food hygiene rating system was something I disagreed with when I first heard from my hygiene inspector of the plans to introduce it and nothing since it’s arrival has made me think differently.

Before it’s introduction the hygiene inspector often commented that we were one of the cleanest businesses of our type in the city yet since it’s introduction the best score we have achieved is a rating of 4, the lowest a 3. From talking to other shop owners it seems the key to getting a higher rating is less about hygiene and more about filling forms in a manner which pleases the EHO. Of course what pleases the EHO changes from visit to visit and I even find them completely contradicting themselves from one visit to the next.

Talking to other business owners it is fascinating how a shop is viewed depending on which EHO inspects your premises. People who have more than one premises which are run in identicle fashions but inspected by different EHO comment on how a standard visit at one site can last 30 minutes and what should be the same visit at another site from a different officer lasts 3hrs!

I have yet to see a business displaying their ‘score’ who hasn’t achieved a rating of 4 or higher. I feel a possible reason for this is that the posters stuck to windows or doors announcing your score don’t make it clear that this is not a rating of how good your business is but an on the day evaluation of how clean your shop is, and more importantly to the EHO how well you complete forms.

Unfortunately I suspect many members of the public DO see it as a score relating to how good the food you produce is, which is why I have seen businesses with 5 star ratings having 20′ banners outside their premises announcing their rating as if it they had received a michelin star.

We all hate filling in forms but the easiest way is to just get on with it and the next time it will be easier unless someone decides to redesign the form.

A fish & chip shop is about the only takeaway I would trust, since I have never heard of cases of food poisoning.

Food poisoning can be very unpleasant. Most cases are never reported but some people land up in hospital and there have been fatalities. I am very glad that premises are inspected. My local chippy has a rating of 5 and was inspected on 23 April 2013. I want to see every premises that serves food display its current score prominently. Of course the rating refers to the day of inspection, in the same way that an MOT does.

E Withers says:
3 November 2014

Were you made aware of how the inspection was going to be graded in terms of what tools the inspector used to calculate it?

Sharma Guness says:
11 July 2013

Alice, hi, from a research perspective and as an academic in research and an industry researcher looking at your article in May I was taken aback. For a simple fact that so many of Bexley postcodes were in the worst performing so to speak. I have requested under the freedom of information, the data that Bexley had provided to the FSA. Now I have also spoken to the FSA, it is clear that the Which? Investigation has simply compared apples and pears, and gave the journalist and the public a ‘fruit salad’, I have never seen such irresponsible research, your note and for your research team….Must Do Better. To discuss this further please contact me ASAP via email.

Although, you should know the bad press has caused local businesses in Bexley to suffer, Bexley is a relatively well to do London suburbia, with great eateries. Nothing wrong with our local food take always or restaurent, plenty wrong with the data you have used to come up with such conclusions. A shame that your editor did not stop to calculate the probability of so many postcodes to be in one Borough!, in the millions, yes.

Contact me ASAP, as this is now going to the Parliament. The question is being asked.

Perhaps you would like to share the information on which your remarks are based with the rest of us?

Sharma Guness says:
11 July 2013

Malcolm , will share it with the nation soon, once we go through due diligence and all known knowns, and known unknowns is/are clearly analysed. Although, I stand by the rhetorics in my previous comments.

Well Sharma, good luck in reaching your conclusions, and resolving what is inconclusive so the investigation can be concluded

Brendan Collins says:
12 July 2013

Hi Sharma

I would be interested to see what information you have, in my analysis which was done independently of Which? I replicated their result that Bexley had the lowest average scores in the country, with an average of 2.99 / 5. In my analysis I excluded any local authority areas where there was data for less than 100 premises, for Bexley there were 676 premises which may not represent all of the premises in Bexley but seems to be a decent sample size. I am sure there is some local variation in how food safety officers score premises but I think that looking at differences in average scores is still useful to start the conversation about food hygiene.

Best wishes

Bren Collins

I don’t expect to be visiting Bexley, but if I wanted to eat out there, I would look for establishments with good ratings for food hygiene. There are plenty with a rating of 5.

Sharma Guness says:
11 July 2013

Thanks Malcolm, it is proving to be tough, but will get there. FSA blaming Councils, Councils holding evidence, Which? Just pretends this has nothing to do with them, they just say they used data available to the public. They are not stupid, they know the research outcome, conclusions they put out in the media has no research validity at all. FSA is promoting their scheme, would they really put their hand up?, I don’t understand Bexley council, hey are not even trying to defend the borough. Which? Will suffer as a brand if this proves to be an irresponsible research seeking hype. They all care about their brand and the likely damage, except for Bexley council- I don’t understand them??


For me, the important thing is to get people looking for the food hygiene rating scores. If the rating is not displayed, that suggests that it is 3 or below. A rating of 5 will help attract discerning customers, even if they are in an area that has a poor reputation.

At best, food poisoning can be unpleasant. At worst you can end up in hospital, and there are a few fatalities.

Sharma Guness says:
12 July 2013

Dear Wavechan,

Agree totally. For me however, the issue here is about trust and credibility in the very agencies that are here to protect us. My issue is research, you have to engage in responsible research and reporting.

At best, a tarnishing lie that Bexley has the worst postcodes for food outlet is damaging to local businesses. If that was true, the including myself, all Bexley residents has somehow built an immunity system, are there are no direct correlation as the Borough having the highest level of Food poisoning!

Food poisoning, hospital and fatalities, these would certainly be the case as the real worst postcodes are somewhere out there, but FSA does not hold a significant amount of data yet, and also reporting these would involve agency collaborations with GPs and NHS. Which? Investigation has validity, so by research default, the real culprits are out there, I can reassure you they are not in London suburbia of Bexley.


As you are an academic you should easily be able to establish that you cannot build up an immunity to food poisoning. Speak to fellow academics who are specialists, or look it up in the scientific journals that academics have privileged access to. If you are accusing Which? of making mistakes it is good to get your facts right.

We need every business with a food hygiene rating to display it prominently, whether it is five or zero. I had forgotten about that postcodes were mentioned in the Which? report. You are doing a good job of reminding us of this investigation. 🙂

Sharma Guness says:
12 July 2013

That’s not what I am saying at all. I am not saying anything to do with the science behind food poisoning, not my field of study I have enormous respect for the scientist and people in the world of compliance.

Not only am I reminding people of the investigation, I am challenging the research methods, the data used, and under the freedom of information I have now received responses from Bexley and have spoken to FSA.

I am accusing Which? Of one thing only, the data under the new scheme launched by FSA in 2010, is still in research terms, to varied in term of data collection methods and date, you jus cannot use them for comparisons yet. May be by 2015, when FSA would have build a critical mass of data, and a ‘data standardisation’ is established, then and only then you will have significance and validity. I am accusing Which? Of comparing apples and pears .

Yes we do need everything you have said in your comment, I am not disputing your area of expertise, I congratulate you for the public good you provide.

I think it would be best to contact Which? directly, explaining your concerns, and provide the evidence and copies of the relevant correspondence. Which? works to serve the interest of its members and the general public and I doubt that it will ignore relevant evidence. The same applies with the FSA.

What I assume Which? was doing mentioning postcodes is to draw attention to regional differences in hygiene ratings. I don’t see this as greatly important, since we need to look at the rating of individual premises and not the general standard in the area. As a scientist I certainly agree that data are standardised, as you say, but if there is already sufficient evidence to demonstrate regional differences, why wait another couple of years before making the information public?

Let’s get these hygiene ratings on the doors of restaurants. That will help those businesses with good ratings and encourage others to clean up their act.

Sharma, there are two separate investigations reported here – Which and Brendan Collins – that reach similar conclusions. If you challenge these then you need to explain why you believe them to be incorrectly based and to produce the data that supports your view.

I see food hygiene as a very important topic; we should expect to be able to eat out without ill effects, or at worst dire consequences. My view is that any establishment that has an unacceptable approach to food hygeine should be closed until it improves,monitored to ensure improvements are maintained, and the costs paid for by the offending establishment. Certainly, consistency in rating should be the aim and all establishments should have to display their rating outside their premises.

Absolutely. Have a look at the number of cases of food poisoning in the UK and be aware that many cases go unreported.

If Which? delayed publication until everything is perfect, they could be fairly criticised for withholding useful information. Many Which? reports alert us to possible problems, which should be further investigated by the appropriate authorities.