/ Shopping, Travel & Leisure

Newark Council: how do you decide where’s safe to eat out?

A dirty plate with knife and fork

Finding a restaurant with good food hygiene credentials is, according to our investigation, a postcode lottery. As the most improved area, here’s Alan of Newark and Sherwood council on the changes they’ve made.

In order to increase the number of broadly compliant premises in the Newark and Sherwood area, we have taken some very simple but effective steps.

The first was to identify those premises that yo-yoed between compliance and non-compliance. These were targeted with a range of interventions, including an in-depth analysis of the compliance issues, guidance on how long-term improvements could be made, and low cost training for staff.

We have also implemented a scheme of agile working which allows our staff increased flexibility to visit premises, such as in early mornings and evenings to coincide with the opening hours of some premises.

The steps we have taken are not ground breaking but small improvements across a number of areas can give big improvements in overall performance. It’s good that Which? is raising awareness of the issue so that other local authorities can make similar improvements.

Working in Environmental Health

Having worked in Environmental Health for more years than I care to remember I am still surprised that there’s a lack of understanding about the role Environmental Health Departments play in food safety.

Quite often the response from friends and family is ’I didn’t realise you did that’ or more commonly ‘I bet you have seen some sights, I’m surprised that you ever go out to eat’. At this stage I don’t bore them by stating that within my local authority area around 96% of food premises are broadly compliant with food legislation, instead I dredge up the details of some long forgotten inspection, add some exaggerated details about what the chef was doing with the cake tongs and then with a wry smile I say ‘and the thing is, you never know what’s going on behind those kitchen doors.’

What’s going on behind kitchen doors?

My question to you is; ‘do consumers know what’s going on behind the kitchen doors?’. On entering food premises what clues are available for you to make a judgement on the standards of food safety? Many will look at the decoration, the cleanliness and maybe the attitude of the staff. These factors can be an indication but equally they can be misleading. There has been many an establishment that have spent all their budget on front of house and left the kitchen staff to prepare food on some of the worst conditions imaginable.

How about the quality of the food as an indicator? Unfortunately good food doesn’t mean safe food. The advent of low temperature cooking methods such as sous vide and the trend towards serving rare meats, particularly burgers, increases the opportunities for things to go wrong. Ten years ago most diners would send a burger back if it was served rare, now it is sent back if it is overcooked.

Deciding where’s safe to eat

So what is my advice to help you decide where to eat? There is only one method, look for the sticker on the door. I don’t mean the Michelin stars or the AA rosettes, I mean the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme.

You will see this on every food premise, or will you? You will probably see it on all the 4 and 5 rated premises, maybe some 3 but rarely on anything lower than this. Why not, because the law doesn’t require them to display their rating. Should it? Would you like to see all ratings displayed?

You can check a rating from the Food Standards Agency website, but surely displaying at the point of service is a better option?

This is a guest post by Alan Batty, Business Manager, Environmental Health at Newark and Sherwood District Council. All opinions are Alan’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


I’m not sure about compulsory display of the scores on the doors. It only represents a moment in time and a lot could have changed between the inspection and when you visit. As Alan has said, the 4 and 5 rated premises probably do it of their own volition and you can make an educated guess about the one’s that don’t. At certain times of the day, particularly for what is laughingly described as the “night-time economy” it’s a fair bet that most takeaways would struggle to get a 2. I would be more interested to know that the environmental health department are keeping the pressure up on the lower-rated establishments and subjecting them to more frequent inspections.

Is there a failure benchmark represented in the ratings? Presumably it is not an offence of any kind to trade continuously for years with a rating of 1, because that happens. At what point, I wonder, should the lower scores be subject to firmer action than a cautionary report and a few minor rectifications?

John – I have been looking at the information on Which? Consumer Insight and discovered that Enfield might not be a good place to eat out. Focusing on this location, most of the zero ratings for food hygiene have been inspected fairly recently but there are examples of premises that have not been reported on in the past year. A zero rating equates to a description of ‘Urgent improvement necessary’.

Premises with a rating of 1 have generally been inspected in 2015 – 2013, though I did see two that were last inspected in 2008. 🙁 A rating of 1 corresponds to ‘Major improvement necessary’.

In my view, urgent improvement is needed in a system that allows companies and other organisations to prepare food for consumption by the public until a subsequent inspection has shown an improvement in the hygiene rating.

As John Ward says unless the hygiene checks are carried out regularly (dpeneding on past performance) and unannounced the star rating might not have much relevance for some establishments. I would like to know why poorly-performing restaurants and takeaways are not colsed (initially temporarily0 when they fail a hygiene test significantly, or repeatedly – nothing like the incentive of losing business to wake people up to their responsibilities.

Ratings should be displayed compulsorily.

Who pays for inspections? I think it should be the premises owner so the scheme is self-funded. That would allow it to be properly staffed and checks routinely made. An annual license might be worthwhile.

I do want to see compulsory display of Food Hygiene Ratings in a prominent place. I agree with John that standards may have deteriorated since the premises was inspected, in the same way that an MOT only provides evidence that a car is safe on the day of the test. Nevertheless, the ratings are the best guide we have at present.

I am not familiar with the inspection process, but I hope that inspectors can make unannounced visits at any time, not to carry out a full inspection but to look for obvious signs of non-compliance with standards.

As Alan has said in his introduction, ratings of 5 and 4 are generally displayed. I have seen several 3 ratings and once spotted a 2, obviously placed where it might not be seen. If display is mandatory, there will be considerable pressure to rectify the problems identified at the inspection that resulted in the low score. With fewer customers, the staff may have more time to devote to these problems.

It would be interesting to know to what extent the efforts spent on inspection by councils are reflected in improvement in hygiene ratings.

Since being awarded a 5 star rating, a restaurant near me has put up its prices. Friends have stopped using it for this reason so I usually end up going there alone. At least I enjoy a nice meal without worrying about food poisoning.

Hopefully the price rises were a coincidence. Many restaurants do achieve a Food Hygiene Rating of 5, so there is competition. On the other hand, awards for the quality of food are less common, so it’s all to common to see price rises when one is awarded.

It is refreshing to see a council actually helping eateries attain a better standard of hygiene as so often they refuse to give you any assistance.

If we are not sure about a restaurant when we walk in the door, we visit the loos before ordering. If they are not clean, then there is not much chance of the kitchen being any better and we walk out.

I also think it should be mandatory for eateries to prominently display their ratings and there should also be random inspections.

Can anyone explain why it is not mandatory to display Food Hygiene Ratings except in Wales? We know that Which? is supportive, so should we write to our MP, the Secretary of State for Health, our local council, or who? Having a top rating for food hygiene is no guarantee that food will be safe the following day, but it is the best guide we have at present.

There’s a very good reason why it should not be compulsory to display the ratings at present: it would be very unfair to a lot of premises. At present no body ensures that standards of rating across the country are consistent, no body has the spare means to do it and that is likely to remain the position.

When I first looked into it one local area, whilst part of the national scheme, used not to give any restaurant, cafe, hotel, B&B or guest-house the top 5-rating, and said a 2-rating was “good”. In isolation that would have been fine – I’m all for adopting high standards – but by comparison with other areas it made them (and the businesses in the area) look bad, because similar areas were giving anything from 10% to 55% of their eating places the top 5-rating. So now they say the 4-rating means “good”: they give over 60% of hotels, B&Bs etc the top 5-rating, and no longer need worry that they might foot tables like those Which has drawn up.

If it had been compulsory to display ratings, all the businesses in the area with decent standards of hygiene would have been forced to display ratings that (on a national scale) were unfairly low, and the public would have been mislead about standards in those businesses. Now it seems that problem has just been passed on to some other area.

This is the real postcode lottery scandal – that businesses are subject to the whims of each council, rather than facing a consistent nationally supervised and enforced standard. Councils may be supposed to apply the same rules but they apply them in their own way and to their own chosen standards – to the detriment of businesses and the public.

If Which wants a survey like this to be reliable, as I do, it should be campaigning for consistency, rather than taking it for granted and ignoring the problem. Without that, national comparisons and tables (such as this one) are gravely flawed. Someone needs the responsibility, the determination, and, above all, the means to ensure consistency of standards. But there is no sign of this at present.

I presume that a score of zero denotes that so much improvement is needed the restaurant or outlet is hygienically “unsafe”. I cannot understand, if that is the case, why they are not shut down until necessary changes have been made.

I would prefer to know, therefore, whether a premises has been passed as “safe” to eat in or take food from. So my criteria would be “safe” and “unsafe” (aka “shut until further notice”).

At present we have the Food Standards Agency coordinating the assessment of Food Hygiene Ratings via the councils, presumably because Environmental Health previously operated in this way.

It would be good if Alan Batty could come back and tell us about the inspection process and how inspectors are trained to help ensure that standards are maintained across the country. My guess is that the FSA looks for councils that are producing average ratings that are lower or higher than might be expected as an indicator of a possible problem with uniformity of standards. When I was teaching we collected statistics for every single module we taught and investigated the reasons for anything anomalous. In universities it is standard practice to ‘moderate’ marks, particularly where a module or a component of a module has unexpectedly low marks. I don’t know what the FSA or the councils do regarding quality control, but they could learn a lot from higher education.

As I mentioned above, some premises are allowed to continue trading with a Food Hygiene Rating of zero or 1 for an extended period, which concerns me.

Lynda Saint says:
5 March 2015

As someone on the receiving end of EHO visits, I agree with the comments about the lack of objectivity… We have been inspected twice by two different officers. The first time, despite only being open for three months and having had to pull a failing (and filthy) establishment up and turn it around, I was given a 1 because my paper work was not up to date even though it was “the cleanest kitchen she had ever seen”. On the second, because my husband likes his Camembert ripe, and there was one in our fridge which was past its “best before” (not even “use by”) and I hadn’t labelled it “personal use only”, we were given a 2 again. And he was upset because he “thought we were a 5”. It is a ridiculous, arbitrary, post code lottery and we should certainly not have to display these meaningless scores until a national standard is achieved. And can I say, I do judge a book by its cover – if you go in and smell stale oil, and the food tastes bad… Don’t go back, even if the place has a five star rating… The best restaurant I know only has a 2 because their English is rubbish and their paperwork unintelligible, despite the food being fabulous and their kitchen pristine. EHO don’t care about the food and just want everyone to buy in so its the factory’s fault if anything goes wrong. I was accused of hiding a freezer in an outbuilding as he couldn’t beleive I actually make food with raw ingredients. Makes me so mad!

I thoroughly agree with you, Lynda Saint, and note that after 2 weeks there is still no comment from Which or the FSA to try to justify the recent “research” or the original ratings. I appreciate that it would be more convenient for the establishment if we all went along with the pious pretence that the ratings must be consistent because if they are not consistent the national comparisons are worthless. However the flaw in that argument is obvious. (Nearly) everyone would like the “Scores on the Doors” scheme to be reliable (which is why the mainstream media are never going to follow this up), but sadly it isn’t, and it won’t be until the government grants the funds to enable someone to monitor and enforce consistency.

Why can not this be self-funded through a charge on all premises serving cooked food? Like a license fee. And why are premises that fail dismally not automatically closed until they demonstrate genuine improvement?

I still suggest two publicised scores are all that are needed – safe to eat, and unsafe until further notice.

Lynda Saint says:
7 March 2015

Because we pay through the nose! Rates, VAT (and we generate it in that we take a non vat product and turn it into a vat able one), licences for music, licences for alcohol… And the supermarkets offer “Eat in for two for a tenner”… Trust me, we are not running off to the Bahamas… In fact, I sometimes wonder why on earth I bother. How can someone who comes in, wants to see the paperwork first… Never even bothers moving a fridge to see what’s underneath… Cares little about the actual standard of the food as long as it’s “safe” for which means made in a factory and filled with lots of preservatives… Our customers are free to wander in and out of my kitchen… They don’t need “scores on the doors”.

Here is an overview of how the inspection process affects companies and other organisations that are required to be assessed: http://www.food.gov.uk/business-industry/caterers/food-law-inspections

One of the linked files indicates that there is currently no charge for making an appeal, but this may change in future. I have no knowledge of whether the Food Standards Agency monitors the uniformity of inspections by different councils.

I see a strong case for the manager of a restaurant etc. paying for a re-inspection if they wish to improve their rating, unless they make a successful appeal concerning the outcome of a recent assessment.

I am very strongly opposed to having a simple classification of premises as safe or unsafe because that gives the consumer no information about standards or the manager an incentive to do more than the bare minimum needed to continue to operate. Which? magazine would not be very useful if washing machines were classified as ‘OK’ or ‘Don’t Buy’.

Official product standards generally test for compliance with safety requirements – so will decide whether a washing machine is safe. If not it should not be marketted. They do not say “its not properly safe but sell it anyway and try to improve it”. Official standards are not usually involved on performance assessment; we use, e.g. Which? for that.

Similarly local authority inspections are checking food safety, not performance. So it should find safe or unsafe. I’ll know then, I hope, whether I can eat there without nasty after effects that were preventable. If I want to know how good their food is I don’t expect the LA to tell me, I’ll look at reviews or judge by my first visit.

A scale of 0 to 5 is meaningless unless it is applied in the same way where throught the country so that 3 in Essex means the same as 3 in Lancashire. And it seemingly fails miserably in this respect. No point in promoting a system that doesn’t work

Anyone who has done risk assessments will know that safety is not black and white. The safety of a washing machine could – for example – be improved by using non-combustible materials for construction or not having a glass door that could break. Compromises are made.

We need to find out what processes are in place to ensure that food hygiene ratings are uniform across the country and what is being done to rectify problems. Until then I’m going to continue to look for the premises with the best ratings in an area.

We should be asking why premises with a 0 or 1 rating are allowed to continue to trade.

Lynda Saint says:
8 March 2015

Yes, we should… To find out if they are doing things like daring to cook runny omelettes from the eggs from the farm accross the way… Or buying in frozen omelletes from who knows where….

Lynda – The premises where the frozen omelettes are produced will have been inspected for food hygiene too. If you want to eat runny omelettes, you can do so at your own risk.

There are plenty of fish & chip shops and burger vans that score 5 for food hygiene and some top restaurants have scored 0 or 1. It’s a question of meeting the standards and respecting the need to provide food that is safe to eat.

But if the burger van was awarded a 5 after an inspection of the van whilst it was in store in a garage rather than when in use (which is the way some councils do it), I wouldn’t want to put any value on that score. Some scores are more misleading than they are helpful.

If that is what is happening then the FSA should be told. We need to know that public money is being spent wisely.