/ 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
Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of Sam Kennedy
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!

Profile photo of John Ward
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.

Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of Beryl
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.

Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of Beryl
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.

Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I don’t know if this is true but I have been told that hospitals, schools and other public sector premises are given advance notice of food hygiene inspections whereas this does not normally happen with the private sector. The person who gave me this information was strongly in favour of all inspections being carried out without prior notification.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I spoke to a local pub manager yesterday and he confirmed that every time he has had an inspection, it has been done without notice. He is proud of having a 5 rating for food hygiene.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

I am coming round to the view that it should mandatory in England for the current food hygiene ratings for each establishment to be displayed on the outside together with the date of certification and the address & telephone number of the responsible authority. But I question whether it is helpful to have five grades of rating. I would suggest something along the lines of :

A. Fully Compliant in all respects [Certificate Issued]
B. Food Hygiene Standards Compliant but Record Keeping Requires Improvement
C. Food Hygiene Standards NOT Compliant [Enforcement Action]

A re-inspection one month later could result in a regrading.

Echoing something Malcolm R has said in a related conversation, I think the whole inspection and enforcement regime should be funded from an annual licence fee. In return for that revenue I think the responsible local authorities should be rquired to make an annual inspection of each premises within fifteen months of the previous one and without prior warning, and should publish its inspection reports, recommendations and ratings on its own website.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

I noticed today, purely coincidentally, that a slaughterhouse owner has been fined £8,000, plus legal costs, for selling 55 horses from his abattoirand accepting 17 animals without keeping proper records. This was the first prosecution for criminal charges relating to the 2013 horsemeat scandal and some of the meat went to Italian restaurants. There was a further payment order of more than £10,442 in costs for breaching EU regulations. Sentencing, the Judge said: “The traceability of food products, here meat, is of critical importance in relation to public health. If meat causes ill health then it is important that those responsible for investigating the cause of it should quickly be able to discover where the meat came from and trace it backwards and backwards and backwards to find where the problem lies and prevent the problem escalating.” While this case relates to the input side of the catering trade, it is just as important for restaurants and take-aways at the output end of the supply chain to also maintain reliable records. In a previous Conversation on this topic, an award-winning restaurateur argued that there was too much attention paid to the paperwork side of restaurant inspection and not enough to the functional aspects. I think both elements need to be given full consideration. There would be no excuse for skimped inspections if councils were remunerated for them from the annual licence fee [and as an added point, re-inspections due to non-compliance could also carry an additional charge].

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

I’m still concerned that a low score implies lack of knowledge or observance of basic hygiene. This can have serious consequences for the health of unsuspecting patrons. Why are they allowed to continue trading, and putting our health at risk, without being shown to demonstrate a genuine commitment to, and routine compliance with, the essentials of safe food preparation? The threat of temporary closure would seem to be an incentive for them to get their act together.

Member
james says:
7 October 2015

Believe me it doesn’t. I have closed premises and once they reopen they can go back to their old ways. Achieving sustainability is key which is often achieved through education. That said prosecution is always a consideration and if convicted they can be banned from ever running a food business again.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

I entirely agree. I think a serious breach of health or safety standards should give rise to an instant closure. I would include anything potentially able to cause harm or illness to a customer or personnel, the storage of any food or ingredients at the wrong temperature, or in an unsafe manner, or beyond the safe period, any form of potential contamination arising from the condition of the premises and the sanitary arrangements, and the presence of insects or any verminous infestation of the premises. An unanswered concern of mine from the previous Conversation was how places that have the lowest ratings can be allowed to remain open at all; in the absence of any publicly-displayed notice to that effect the public would have no way of knowing that they could be at risk, and for a public authority to leave people in such ignorance is not acceptable in my view. In the interests of the premises that are fully compliant and are struggling to survive in the face of unfair competition, as well as the over-riding need to safeguard public health and safety, the unfit establishments have to be shut down until they have put things right.

Member
Piero LF says:
26 August 2015

Hi, it seems to me that while inspections to restaurants and other private catering services are carried out without notice, large companies such as MacDonald’s and other big brands manage to be told in advance when the inspection will take place thus rendering the inspection practically useless and ineffective as they have time
to clean the premises.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

I have never come across any evidence of that; can you substantiate it? I doubt if there are any public health inspectors willing to put their jobs at risk for the sake of a tip-off and their price, if they were corrupt, would be unaffordable for the average franchise-holder. Or are you suggesting that the companies themselves are operating major slush funds?

I am not a frequenter of MacDonalds or Burger King or other big brands, but on the occasions when I have been inside them I have found them to be scrupulously clean.

I am no defender of the big fast-food chains but we don’t need to be making wild accusations against the one part of the restaurant trade that has a very good hygiene and safety record in its outlets.

Member
Piero PLF says:
27 August 2015

Thanks for the quick reply Mr. Ward. I asked because I’m finishing a book on food and hygiene is one of its topics. While making enquiries I was told by a ex worker of a MacDonald’s that the place where she worked in Victoria was filthy and the manager didn’t care at all about hygiene. She told me that one early morning she and other members of the staff were told by the manager to clean the place thoroughly because there would be an hygiene inspection later in the day. She also told me however me that while the place where she worked was filthy and disgusting another MacDonald’s where her boyfriend worked was always clean. Therefore its clear that being MAc Donald’s franchises cleanliness depend on the management.
Anyway from what I gather the place where the girl worked somehow managed to convince the inspector to delay the inspection maybe putting as an excuse that the officer wanted to inspect it at very busy time that was inconvenient, However as for inspections in general after having asked a lot of questions to restaurateurs that I know I’m satisfied that in Britain hygiene inspectors do their jobs properly. Whether the system is 100% fool proof I don’t know yet but I will find out. Piero A. La Franca

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

Generalising from a single anecdote comes with risks but your publisher will no doubt take care of that. With any franchised operation there are going to be variations across the range. You don’t say whether the inspection at the Victoria MacDonalds was an internal company inspection [which might well have been telegraphed in advance, or due on a calendar rota] or was a local authority hygiene inspection.

If, in an attempt to raise standards and as a matter of official policy, local authorities do give advance notice of an inspection, I would expect them to be totally unforgiving in terms of compliance – so the overall purpose of the food safety and hygiene regime will have been served. They should also ensure there is no slip-back during the post-inspection period. But going back to what I said previously, for a council officer to tip off a trader about a forthcoming inspection in return for monetary or other gain would put them at risk of being reported or of potential blackmail, the likelhood of prosecution or at the least dismissal, the end of their career in public service, the possible loss of their pension, and a possible prison sentence. The “price” for that would be very high which is why it doesn’t happen.

I agree with your statement that in the UK the council hygiene inspectors do their jobs properly . Our problem is that (a) because of cuts they don’t do it frequently enough given that premises are always changing hands, (b) they are not rigorous enough at the lower end of the scale and should get an order to close places that are putting the public’s or staff’s health and safety at risk, (c) the system does not have enough incentives to reach for the stars, and (d) there is no requirement to publish the reports or to display the star ratings on the premises.