Should restaurants display hygiene scores on their doors?

It’s happened to many of us. You sit down for a meal in a restaurant and look around, only to realise that the place isn’t as clean as you’d like. You can’t help thinking, if front-of-house is dirty, what will the kitchen be like?

You can see unclean cutlery, unswept floors, perhaps even the odd rodent or two. But other than demanding to inspect a restaurant’s kitchen, and to look out for anything with more than two legs before you pick up your fork, how on earth can you know whether the restaurant’s hygiene is up to scratch?

Well, the Welsh government is planning to make it mandatory for all eating establishments in Wales to have their latest food hygiene scores, awarded by the local authority’s environmental health department, shown clearly on the door.

At the moment displaying ‘Scores on the Doors’ is voluntary in the UK, which generally means that only restaurants with good scores tend to let their customers know about it.

Hurray for hygiene scores

This is an issue we’ve been covering in our magazine for many years. We’ve always thought you should be able to find out how restaurants fared when they were last inspected quickly and easily. Denmark and some US cities have been publishing hygiene scores on restaurant doors for a while and they found it tends toraise standards and leads to fewer people becoming ill.

Many argue that hygiene scores aren’t fair – after all, restaurant managers may become complacent about hygiene once it’s achieved a high-scoring inspection.

But now there’s a national system in place whereby inspections are carried out based on the overall risk of each restaurant and confidence in its management. Scores are allocated on a five point scale, so you can see who’s broadly compliant with hygiene rules and who is excellent or poor. It’s also possible in many cases for a restaurant to request a re-inspection if it thinks its score no longer reflects its standards.

However, there is a danger that paying for frequent hygiene inspections won’t exactly top the list when local councils decide how to allocate their budgets. On the other hand, inspections are required by law and are audited by the Food Standards Agency.

Knowledge is power

Surely more information is a good thing? It’s already helpful that so many councils provide hygiene ratings on their websites. And if you don’t know which council the place you’re eating in is located, the Food Standards Agency has a national site to help you find the score.

So, if the Welsh bill passes, anyone eating out in Wales will be able to easily avoid restaurants with low scores by simply looking at a sticker on the front door. Meanwhile in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, customers will have to rely on a restaurant’s honesty or make a point of going to the website.

At Which?, we’re fully supportive of the Welsh Government’s plans and want to see the system put in place across the UK. Have you ever been to a restaurant with less-than-impressive hygiene, and do you think having scores on the doors would’ve made any difference?

Comments
Member

If I don’t see the score displayed prominently I assume that it is not a very good score, or that the rats have eaten the notice. 🙂

I do look out for these notices and hope that they are updated if there is a change of ownership.

Member

An officer of my council was foolish enough to say almost exactly the same in public and realised how unfair and indeed libellous it was .
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, my local district council, 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.
The council were adamant that their standards were consistent with those across the country, without any evidence of whether or not this was true. But eventually they realized that adopting more stringent standards than the rest of the country made them look bad by comparison, so now they say the 4-rating means “good”: they give over 60% of hotels, B&Bs etc the top 5-rating, and they no longer need worry that they might foot tables like those Which has drawn up. The publicity attendant on the national scheme has therefore resulted in my council enforcing lower standards than before.
If it had been compulsory to display ratings, all the businesses in this 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 both 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.

Member

I totally agree that inconsistent judgments and lack of conformance to a national standard seriously weaken the scheme. Why Councils should try to make it up as they go along beats me – it’s bound to lead to trouble as you have pointed out and it is no service to the public however pleased with themselves they feel about it. Apart from anything else, such a deviant policy would undermine any case in the Magistrates Court to have a premises closed.

I would have hoped that the Food Standards Agency, the professional body representing environmental health officers, and the Local Government Association would have cooperated in drawing up a specification for each score from 1 to 5 that could be applied consistently across the country. That would still leave some room for the individual inspector’s discretion about what they saw or did not see but many of the components of the scoring system must be capable of being categorised with range definitions . I would also hope that every authority would make their individual premises reports available on line so that we can see how consistent they are and in conformity with the overall national standards.

Member

I absolutely agree on the need for consistency. Maybe if the display of food hygiene ratings was compulsory there would be more pressure on the Food Standards Agency and environmental health departments to work towards greater consistency.

It’s obviously worth looking at the spread of ratings for different types of establishments in areas covered by different departments to look for obvious problems. I don’t know if the FSA performs spot checks to establish if the assessments are accurate and fair to businesses.

From my perspective as a customer I am concerned about food safety when eating out and always look for places with a 5 rating. I went for lunch with a couple of visitors on Saturday and rejected the first venue because the next had their rating conspicuously displayed. When we came out, one of my visitors saw that the first venue did have a five rating but we had missed it because it was not near the door.

Member

No doubt there are published standards, but my experience shows that there is precious little consistency. The article above claims that the inspections ‘are audited by the Food Standards Agency’. I have made enquiries of the FSA and that appears not to be so. Until the FSA have the duty, the will and the means to enforce a proper level of consistency in the inspections the lottery will remain and there should be no question of the criminal law requiring businesses to display the results of an unsatisfactory scheme; and Which does its reputation no good by blindly sharing the pretence of the FSA that consistency will miraculously emerge without the need for public expenditure to provide a suitable means to ensure it.

Member

Here is a relevant recent document from the FSA website: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/multimedia/pdfs/enforcement/fhrsguidance.pdf

I have my own concerns about underfunding, albeit from a different perspective. We have a major problem with campylobacter food poisoning and the FSA was doing a good job to publicise the extent of contamination of chicken sold by supermarkets but their monitoring has been cut back and once again we are largely reliant on the supermarkets to police the problem. We need fully independent testing and consistency of testing to provide useful information.

I have found the FSA responsive and hope that you will take this matter further. This Conversation is five years old and it would be good for Which? to revisit the topic and address your concerns.

John Ward informed us that Norwich City Council used to publish details of inspections online, but that seems to have been stopped.

Member

Campylobacter is being monitored by the FSA. The latest results( Q1 2017) are here and show a decrease once again. I assume we can expect the next report in September.

The FSA has laid down the testing regime to ensure consistency among all who test, including themselves.

https://www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2017/16235/further-reduction-levels-of-campylobacter-chicken

Member

I had a long discussion with an Environmental Health Officer from a city council and he shared my concerns about the campylobacter problem. His main concern was about the plans for self-regulation in the industry and suggested I read up on ‘Regulating Our Future’. I want to see consistency, which means not only proven consistency of testing. Having carried out bacterial counts and taught others to do them, I know that consistency is difficult to achieve and reasons for this. It’s not fair on businesses if testing unless ratings accurately reflect their performance.

There are plenty of Conversations about campylobacter and perhaps we should focus on the issue raised by Fairplay4all.