/ Food & Drink

How safe is your food?

A dirty plate with knife and fork

One year on from the horsemeat scandal have food standards changed? Our latest investigation reveals there’s a huge variation in standards as we highlight the best and poorest performing local authorities…

We expect the food we buy to be safe. Food hygiene is important as food that isn’t handled or cooked properly can lead to contamination or pest infestation. In turn this can lead to illness or, in extreme cases, death.

In our latest investigation we looked at data collected by the Food Standards Agency and used this to rank 395 local authorities for their performance on food safety enforcement. And the results were worrying as local food checks were shown to be in decline.

Cheers for Cherwell, boos for Bexley

The best performing 10 local authorities in the UK were Cherwell, Brentwood, Basingstoke & Dean, Eden, Pendle, Ballymena, Ribble Valley, Rossendale, High Peak and Maldon.

In Cherwell, in the South East, all new food businesses had been visited and assessed for their risk, all planned interventions had been achieved and 97.6% of high- and medium-risk businesses were compliant (scoring 3 and above stars on the hygiene rating scheme).

The worst 10 local authorities in the UK were: Bexley, Ealing, Medway, West Dunbartonshire, Wycombe, Harrow, Richmond upon Thames, Southwark, Moyle and Enfield.

In Bexley, London – the worst performing local authority in the UK – 80.2% of new businesses had been visited, 87% of interventions had been achieved but only 57.3% of businesses were scoring 3 and above stars in the hygiene rating scheme.

Displaying hygiene ratings upfront

You can check to see if a restaurant is compliant with food hygiene by checking its hygiene rating score. In Wales, all food businesses have to display their hygiene ratings by law. Northern Ireland is also proposing to make display mandatory and Scotland has consulted on extending powers to enable this. However, in England there are no plans for mandatory display.

We want to see it become mandatory across the UK for restaurants to display their hygiene ratings. This way you’ll be able to see at a glance whether the place you plan to eat in is hygienic or not. At present you’d need to check online before choosing your venue – which is not very practical when you’re out and about.

We’re calling on the Government, Food Standards Agency and local authorities to take action. We want to ensure there’s a joined up approach for action that makes the best use of local authorities’ resources and shares expertise. Threats to the food supply chain need to be better anticipated and consumer needs put first with tougher sanctions for those who fail to comply.

Do you check the hygiene rating of restaurants before you eat out? Have you encountered issues with food hygiene and reported it to your local authority in the past?

Do you check restaurant hygiene ratings before you eat out?

No, never (37%, 477 Votes)

Yes, sometimes (25%, 319 Votes)

No, but I will from now on (23%, 298 Votes)

Yes, all the time (15%, 195 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,289

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I stopped eating meat back-end of last year. I even had a Quorn xmas dinner. Not sure if it’s anything to-do with the horsemeat or not. I just found it hard to carry on eating animals.

Bella my baby girl still eats meat. But she has too 🙂

I don’t think I have ever seen a food hygiene rating below 3 displayed at any premises. I do check before eating out and encourage friends to do the same. Those establishments with a poor rating should have to pay for reinspection.

If it is mandatory to display food hygiene ratings in Wales, then why not in the rest of the UK?

One of the problems with the hygiene ratings is that some councils are seriously behind in their inspection programme and the “scores on the doors” can be misleading about the current standard of hygiene. A 3 rating might have been compliant at the time of the inspection, indeed it might well have been borderline because the inspectors gave some words of encouragement for better practice and the proprietor promised to take them on board, but standards might have slipped between then and now. I refuse to go anywhere with a score lower than four and if the rating is not displayed then I assume the establishment is not satisfactory. I am not sure how easy it is for a conscientious restaurateur to have a re-inspection carried out to recognise improvements made since the previous inspection; equally, do councils look out for, or react to concerns about, a decline in standards at an establishment or does it carry on until the next programmed inspection? I assume that local authorities prioritise their inspections so that scrutiny is focussed to where it is most critical, but they need to be up-to-date and even-handed overall because some of the reputable national chains which generally have good scores need to be kept up to the mark at a local level. Ideally, no more than thirteen months should pass between inspections and the ratings notices on the premises should be updated following every inspection. A large font over-print of the month/year, or a distinctive coloured bar across the notice would help.

I am glad you have looked at the performance of the local authorities and highlighted the best and worst performers. The sure way to raise standards in food establishments is to have a thorough inspection and enforecement regime and those councils that are delinquent in this need to be hauled over the coals because they are failing in their statutory duty of public protection. This is more important than distributing free newsletters to residents, putting up Christmas lights, and having an annual mayoral banquet [don’t go there – poor hygiene!]. With eating-out on a knife-edge due to the recession, and the high turnover of catering staff and over-reliance on casual labour, it is vital that proper food safety inspections are carried out efficiently and regularly. One thing this system does allow for is the role of the local authority to be examined in the event of a food poisoning or contamination incident; unfortunately, the local council is probably the prosecuting authority and will obviously not put its own lethargy up as Exhibit B. Maybe the Food Standards Agency should have an over-riding power to take action against an authority that has been negligent in maintaining standards.

I live in Norwich and have just discovered my favourite takeaway store has a ZERO rating. I was wondering why the takeaway was not displaying their score while other takeaways in the same street were. When I had a look on-line on the Food Standard Agency’s website I was shocked to discover their zero rating. I will definitely not be getting anything more from them and will not be surprised if they are not in business in a year’s time.

Hi Wood Greener. You will find that Norwich City Council has an excellent food hygiene section on its website detailing all the establishments [which you can aceess by various classifications] and giving lots of data and access to the actual inspection reports. This also shows how up-to-date the inspections are.

Thanks for the information. I have just had a look at the Norwich City website on hygiene. Have now also learnt my local bakery has a ZERO rating too. The inspectors report for that establishment was not a nice read!

Norwich City Council is to be commended for making detailed reports about inspection of establishments available online.

What concerns me is that in these reports a frequent criticism is failure to use materials such as anti-bacterial sprays on surfaces. I expect that most of us know that it is not necessary to use these products in the home to avoid food poisoning. There are also good reasons why anti-bacterial products are best avoided in day-to-day use, though the manufacturers try to convince us that they are essential.

Here is an article about the introduction of compulsory display of food hygiene ratings in Wales:


One piece of information from this article: “The FSA estimates there are around a million cases of food-borne illness in the UK each year, resulting in 20,000 hospital admissions and contributing to around 500 deaths.”

Andrew Kerr says:
17 January 2014

I have given up eating meat and most dairy products. I am concerned about the processes involved in making margarines, spread substitutes for butter and ‘milks’ like Apro. I know soya should be avoided, it being mostly harvested from reclaimed rain forest land. However they do not tell you how they make the margarines and similar spreads, or milk. Does anyone know about this?

A friend of mine eats out at restaurants, regularly. He went to a Michelin one star restaurant, in Birmingham, & had an excellent meal. He decided to check their Score on the Door, after he had left, & found it to be only ONE. Apparently, Michelin inspectors do not check Food Safety or Hygiene as part of their rating scheme. Surely one or less should warrant a closure order.

There was a similar case in London within the last year.

My concern is that food handlers seem to think that wearing latex gloves means that everything they touch is safe. How many times do you see food handlers in restaurants, supermarkets etc. scratching noses, adjusting clothing, wiping down surfaces, collecting money and of course handle food whilst wearing the SAME PAIR OF GLOVES! Gloves should be changed for each task. Though I have heard that some employers discourage this practice because of the cost.

Catering manager leaves kitchen, goes downstairs to ladies & returns to kitchen. Provided she washed her hands, no problem, but gloves remove that “unclean” feeling, & it does not look good to hospital patients.

Jeff P says:
17 January 2014

The problems that we are experiencing within the food industry cannot all be blamed on the local inspectorates or individual retailers but on the drive by food suppliers to keep costs down whilst retaining high profit margins

The last 20+ years of my working life I spent working around the World quality auditing manufacturers for one of the larger feed/pet food companies where many of the safety standards are higher that those required for food

It was not unusual to fail a company as a supplier to our animal feed company when the very same manufacturer was already shipping to food companies in Europe
The dried milk producer, the subject of the baby milk products was just one supplier

Too often the only checks carried out by food companies were office based paper chases, in depth inspection at the factories and continuing quality auditing was the only way to ensure that our products were of the optimum safety and quality

I am glad the standards for animal feeds are as high or higher than for food intended for human consumption; after all, what the animals eat conditions what we eat.

Phil Hall says:
17 January 2014

About 3 months ago I found a small piece of plastic in a packet of sultanas I bought at Sainsbury’s. I took it back to customer services at the supermarket where I bought it. They refunded the purchase price and promised that the matter would be investigated and I would hear from them. But I have heard nothing. Over the years I have occasionally found unwanted and I assume potentially hazardous non-food items in packets of food.
Very likely we have all swallowed some of these items when we have not spotted them!

Peter Dixon says:
17 January 2014

When I was an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) we inspected all premises selling ‘open’ food, ie. butchers, restaurants, delicatessens etc at least 4 times a year and always unannounced. Depending on what we observed we issued verbal warnings or written warnings and if there was a serious breach of regulations we would prosecute. When warnings were issued a follow-up inspection would take place after a week or month depending on what was required and if there was insufficient improvement legal action would follow.
Last week I visited a nearby restaurant and noticed the ‘score-on-the-door’, it was a ‘4’ but I also noticed that the most recent inspection took place over 18 months ago, that score was therefor meaningless and irrelevant.
I worked for one of the worst Authorities found in your survey and know that the number of EHOs has reduced quite drastically since I retired with a consequent reduction in the number and quality of inspections carried out. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions but would say that ‘scores-on-the-doors’ are not the answer to poor hygiene in restaurants.

Roger suggests that anyone with a rating of ONE or less should warrant a closure order. Surely it should be two or even three – these premises are a risk to everyone who eats there or has takeaways from them. Maybe it should be an instant closure. I have seen on television indications that very poor results have not been followed up and only a re-visit made after a year when very little has changed, which makes the original inspection a waste of time. Is this not a matter for a campaign?

This, thankfully, happened many years ago, though diners should still be on their guard. It was a popular, mid-range restaurant in Stoke Newington, London, where I ordered fish and chips. Halfway through my meal, I uncovered fragments of pastry among the chips! As I poked around, more pastry crumbs appeared. It became apparent to me that a previous customer who had ordered maybe pie and chips had left most of his chips, which had then been scraped onto my plate and served as fresh. When I called the waitress over to complain, she went to fetch the manager. However, instead of the manager, the chef appeared, extremely irate with a half-smoked cigarette hanging from his lower lip, waving his arms about and in pidgin English, loudly accusing me of being ‘effing troublemaker! Sometimes, getting out with life and limb intact may be preferable to the moral satisfaction of making a complaint, however legitimate!

From the FAQ about food hygiene rating schemes on the FSA website:
The time between inspections varies from six months for the highest risk business to two years for lower risk businesses. For some very low risk businesses, the interval between inspections may be greater than this.

It is not difficult to see that many of the premises were last inspected more than two years ago. As Peter Dixon has said, inspections are not sufficiently frequent. The food hygiene ratings should have an expiry date, in the same way that electrical items that have been PAT tested do. This can help in several ways.

– It will reassure customers to know that an inspection has been carried out recently.
– It will show if the local authority is not having premises inspected sufficiently frequently.
– It will ensure that the company/organisation displays its current rating and not a better previous rating.

In some cases, a business may ask its local authority for a visit to be carried out before the next planned inspection is due. This is where the business was given a rating below the top one of ‘5’ but has since made improvements to hygiene standards. This means the food safety officer can check the improvements have been made and see if a new rating should be given.

This implies that priority is given to early inspection of a business where improvements have been made rather than those that have done nothing to improve their standards!

The paragraph you have italicised is a good illustration that the path to hell is paved with good intentions – but, as you point out, it entirely misses the point! There is clearly a mismatch between what the FSA aspires to and what local authorities actually do. I believe councils used to be subject to peformance audits to ensure they were carrying out their statutory duties adequately. I suspect that these requirements were destroyed in the great bonfire of the regulations that took place in order to simplify local government, cut down bureaucracy, and lower the council tax. And here we are asking to put it all back! Well, it’s a question of priorities, and I happen to think that public protection is paramount and that preventive action on hygiene and infection control pays for itself in the long run.

I have previously mentioned the practice of Norwich City Council to give plenty of information on their website about food establishments in the city. There is a tourism promotion organisation called “VisitNorwich” (sic) which is “funded by Norwich City Council, South Norfolk Council and local businesses”. It publishes a guide to “Eating out in Norwich & Norfolk” and lists 40+ refreshment houses of various types – a small percentage of the total and probably included only in return for a payment or an advert. I have in my hand as I write a copy of the current edition and, needless to say, the opportunity to give the food hygiene ratings has not been grasped! I intend to write to them with a recommendation that they include this vital information in future editions.

I think your suggestion for raising awareness of food hygiene ratings in this way is excellent, John. The problem is that these ratings become out of date, so perhaps they should be dated, much in the same way that other awards are valid for a year. It might help force local authorities to actually make annual inspections.

Yes that is a very good point and I shall include that recommendation. A further thought I had was that the tourism people shouldn’t even include any establishment in their guide that achieved less than four stars. It will be a laborious process but I think I shall go through this year’s edition and look up the latest rating and inspection date for each premises and then make a summary of that part of my submission.

LordElpus says:
19 January 2014

I’m concerned by food handlers in restaurants, sandwich bars and supermarkets. Who seem to think that wearing latex gloves excuses them from the normal rules of hygiene. You see them scratching, adjusting clothing, wiping down surfaces, handling money and of course handling food! All whilst wearing the same pair of gloves. I’m given to understand that managers/proprietors of some establishments actually discourage constant changing and discarding of gloves and issue only one or two pairs for use a day

Gloves will wash, just like hands. Staff could put on new gloves 200 times a day without achieving very much.

It should be obvious to everyone handling food that it is not a good idea to do cleaning jobs at the same time. I remember a shop assistant holding the head of a sweeping brush, trying to put it back on the broom shaft. She put the brush to one side and without washing her hands, proceeded to cut a piece of cheddar for me. That incident, over 40 years ago, made me very fussy about using fresh food counters. It is amazing what some staff get up to when they are not aware they are being observed.

At our local Tesco superstore the staff who smoke seem compelled to have their breaks outside the main entrance which, as well as making that a foul area, enables the customers to witness them going straight back to their posts without visiting a washroom.

Just to balance things up a bit between the major supermarkets, I have also on two occasions had to draw to the attention of both Sainsbury’s and Morrisons’ management a dirty habit of staff who are manually marking down the prices of our daily bread as the day draws to an end. I have seen them put the ball-point pen in their mouth while they use both hands to rearrange the loaves on the rack. They then take the pen out of their mouth with their hand and use it to write on the labels. The bread is wrapped in a breathable material and not hermetically sealed so there is a slight risk of contamination. In any case, even if there were no such risk, it is not a satisfactory procedure.

You might be interested in our latest opinion piece:

“Twelve months after the horsemeat scandal fiasco and our latest research shows that half of consumers say they have changed their shopping habits.” https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/horsemeat-elliot-review-food-safety-labelling/

Jessie Bell says:
22 January 2014

I have considerable sympathy for local authority food standard authorities. In the early 80s many had staff cutbacks just at the point when more cafes, restaurants and food outlets were opening.
Councils struggle to provide many public services on subsidy from the government which has been “squeezed” over the past 30 years. Power has been centralized. Complain to your MP as well as signing petitions. Hmmm…Wonder what the food is like in the Houses of Parliament?

The House of Commons has a food hygiene rating of 5, but that was in Septermber 2012.

Most of the comments relate to food hygiene in food outlets, which is important, but there seems to be little about fresh food packaged elsewhere. There seems to be little knowledge that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) recognises the potential health hazard in pre-packed fresh salad materials and advise that some packers sterilise the leaves before packing and some don’t; apparently this is a voluntary arrangement, so your “freshly washed salad” could actually harbour a significant level of pathogens which can do harm to vulnerable people such as the young and the old, depending on the packer and how long it has been on the shelf. I have suffered most of my life from a sensitivity to unsterilised pre-packed salads and I know of many other people who also have this problem. At home we follow the FSA advice and sterilise the leaves in Sodium metabisulphite solution (for sterilising baby feeding and wine bottles) for 15 minutes which solves the problem. If I buy a pre-packed sandwich which contains salad, invariably this leads to a mild gastro upset, for the same reasons.

Considering the many people that suffer from this problem and how it can be quite harmful to the young and old, I have suggested several times to Which that they investigate the health safety of pre-packed fresh foods that are not cooked, but so far this has not happened. Do any of you experience the same problem?

Bernard John Powell says:
22 February 2014

I have just retired from working in the food industry where hygiene was paramount. I hate to see food retailers with nothing on their head even though the shop has a rating of 5. In one Marks and Spencer café I noticed only some staff were wearing hairnets. I was told only staff who prepare food wear hairnets yet other staff handle food from the display cabinets.
Whenever I am in Wigan,Lancashire ,I visit Galloways cake shop in Market Place. The staff always wear a cap combined with a hairnet.