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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?

Comments
Member

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?

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.