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:
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?