/ Food & Drink, Health

My day as a food hygiene inspector

Inspections by Environmental Health officers ensure food businesses are complying with food law. But what actually happens on an inspection? I went undercover to get the inside scoop.

I recently went on two food hygiene inspection visits with the City of London Corporation. As well as assessing compliance with food law, inspections are when food hygiene ratings are awarded. We visited a chain pub and an Indian restaurant. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) helped set up the trip following a meeting we’d had with them about food law enforcement.

Before I went out on the inspection I had a chat with the Food Safety Team Manager there who explained how they work and the sort of businesses they have in the area. The type of food businesses in a local area have a huge impact on how a local authority delivers food enforcement. For the City of London they have large numbers of food businesses to cater for the 400,000 people who work in the City.

Behind the kitchen doors

It was great to see how inspections work in reality – the inspector heads straight into the kitchen, puts on their white coat and hat and announces their arrival.

First stop is hand washing. This is for two reasons – 1) they’re about to touch things in the kitchen and 2) to check there’s proper hand washing facilities available.

They then inspect the kitchens: checking in and around fridges, seeing how they prepare and store the food, what food safety systems they have in place, swabbing work surfaces and chopping boards. They also ask the chef questions about processes to test their knowledge and check over the relevant paperwork. Paperwork might not sound exciting, but it’s crucial that supply chains can be traced if there’s an incident and that any management systems are appropriately supported.

Then at the end of the inspection they talk through what was found with the manager and/or chef and what they need to do to improve. This video from the FSA explains what an inspector is looking for:

London calling

At the first place (the pub) everything was in order, they’d had a mouse problem but this had clearly been dealt with. The chef was busy getting things ready for the day ahead, yet was on hand to help the inspector find everything he needed to see. The rating would go from a 4 to a 5 rating indicating compliance was very good.

At the second place things weren’t so good. On our arrival they’d asked if we could come back tomorrow – it was soon clear why. There was very limited paperwork to demonstrate food supply chains or that procedures were being followed. And there was also clear evidence of a mouse problem. All this meant that the food hygiene rating would go from the current 3 to a 1, meaning major improvement was necessary.

What should be done?

While both the businesses I visited did display their food hygiene rating, it’s not compulsory to do so in England, Northern Ireland or Scotland. In England only 35% display their rating somewhere customers can see before going into a food business. However, display has been mandatory in Wales for over a year now and the evidence so far shows that this is improving compliance with food hygiene rules.

We’d like the display of food hygiene ratings made compulsory as soon as possible to provide greater transparency of standards across all food businesses and to give consumers confidence about where they choose to eat.

Do you wonder what’s going on behind the kitchen doors when you eat out? Or do you check food hygiene ratings so you’re not in the dark?

Comments
Member

I am delighted that Which? is helping raise awareness of Food Hygiene Ratings. The scheme is obviously not perfect because standards can decline since the last inspection, but it is difficult to see a better alternative. I strongly support the 0 to 5 rating system because it provides an incentive to improve standards.

The Food Standards Agency has not provided the public with much of an insight into how the process works. Some questions that we have raised recently on Which? Conversation are:

1) What is done to ensure that the inspections carried out in different parts of the country to ensure consistent standards?

2) Why is paperwork so important? A couple of examples would illustrate why it is just as important as ensuring that there is no mouse problem, for example.

3) What is standing in the way of making display of Food Hygiene Ratings mandatory, as it is in Wales? Can Which? put pressure on the government to move this on?

Finally, is Sam reassured by the food hygiene inspection procedure or put off eating out by memories of seeing mouse droppings? 🙂

I do look at the Food Hygiene Ratings before eating out. Having once found a restaurant that displayed a higher rating than it was entitled to on the premises and their website, I look at the ratings on the FSA website.

Member

Hi wavechange, glad to hear you like what we’re doing on food hygiene ratings 🙂 To answer your questions –

1) The FSA oversee the scheme across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Food Standards Scotland will be responsible for the Food Hygiene Information Scheme there when they officially start to exist on 1st April), and they have a number of tools for ensuring consistency. For example, there’s a ‘brand standard’ local authorities have to follow when inspecting and when awarding ratings. Consistency is a priority for the reputation of the scheme. There’s lots more info which might be helpful here – http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/hygiene-rating-schemes/rating-schemes-faqs-en/fhrs

2) A hypothetical example of why paperwork is important – there’s an outbreak of food poisoning linked to meat from a restaurant. The invoices for where meat cooked and sold by that business will show where it came from and that can be used to trace the source of the problem and anywhere else the same supply is being sold.

3) We certainly are putting pressure on the Government and it’s something we’re keen to see the next Government bring in. We know that the FSA and Department of Health are going to look at the evidence from the first year of mandatory display in Wales and mandatory display is part of the FSA’s strategy so we’ll be working with them to make sure it happens.

Finally, yes I am reassured having seen the procedures. Working in this area I now regularly look at ratings and this visit has prompted me to more frequently!

Member

Useful responses, Sam.

Wavechange raised a further point at the end of his original comment [at the top of the Conversation] that restaurants have been known to display a higher score than that to which they were currently entitled. Is there a penalty for that? Presumably if we come across such a case we need to report it to the relevant local authority’s environmental health department.

Member

Thanks very much Sam. The information on the FSA website has been updated since I last looked at it. I still do not understand why some premises with a rating of 0 and 1 are allowed to continue to operate for many months before re-inspection. My view is that they should be closed until improvements have been carried out and re-inspection has taken place.

I also feel that the FSA should handle all public complaints to give them an overview of problems, rather than expecting us to contact the relevant council. It would help give the FSA an overview of problems, some of which could be down to the local council. With my complaint – which John refers to – I was asked to contact a council and I asked the FSA to do this, which they did. If it had been my local council I might have done this myself.

Member

All of the large Supermarkets in my area have a 5 star rating. The food inspectors evidently are not required to check for campylobacter in their chickens. Presumably unless I see a 5 star sticker on display I assume ratings are 4 or lower. It would help customers to choose where they eat if it was made compulsory to display them everywhere.

Member

It is very sad that our retailers are selling chicken that is so contaminated with campylobacter that it is now considered unsafe to wash. I would not be surprised if there is more risk to our health from campylobacter than a mouse infestation.

Member

Hear Hear Wavechange! Under the Sale of Goods & Services Act, the retailer is responsible for faulty goods and services. Contaminated food should also be included under this Act to protect consumers from contracting potentially killer diseases.

Member

It is often pointed out that chicken is safe to eat if it is properly cooked, but mistakes happen despite it being common knowledge that all meat has to be cooked properly before consumption. There are an estimated 280,000 cases of campylobacter per year, though I don’t know this number is made up of food prepared in the home and prepared at premises that are subject to routine inspections.

I don’t think that some people understand the risks of contaminated food. Education is needed.