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
Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of Fairplay4all
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.

Profile photo of John Ward
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.

Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of Fairplay4all
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.

Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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

Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

Wavechange – I was surprised to hear that Norwich City Council had stopped publishing food hygiene inspection reports on line so I did a quick check. They take a bit of finding with many clicks through their navigation system but they are still there I am pleased to say.

I found one here –
https://www.norwich.gov.uk/site/custom_scripts/eh/Reports/15-00120-FOOD_SUM.pdf

It is a bit of a faff, but once in the Norwich City Council website home page you have to drop down to ‘Environmental issues’, then click on ‘More in environmental issues’, drop down to ‘Food health and safety’ and click on the button, then open ‘Food hygiene and safety’. Then you need to click on the ‘Look up a food hygiene rating’ button and take it from there. After selecting an establishment either from the list or using the alphabetical keys you can see the rating. The establishments are also classified so you can see all the Indian restaurants in one list or all the fish & chip shops, etc. Alongside the rating is a button to click to read the actual inspectors’ report.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

I was pointing out, in response to your statement about campylobacter, that the FSA are continuing to monitor in case it was misunderstood 🙂

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Thanks very much, John. I looked at reports a few years ago and have mentioned this to a couple of microbiologists. When I looked today I assumed that there would be links from the pages showing the ratings of premises. I wonder if there are other councils that do the same.

The EHO I mentioned worked for a city council and takeaways were his biggest problem, which is not uncommon in urban areas.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

Do I smell a rat? Our excellent butcher has, unintentionally, made me a little bit suspicious, about the hygiene ratings. The shop [not a restaurant but the same scheme applies] gets an excellent, and well-deserved, rating from the envionmental health service but the butcher has placed in the window a photocopy of the letter they received from the EHO enclosing their scoresheet. This letter sets out in gushing prose how wonderful they are and how cooperative they have been and what a pleasure it has been to undertake the inspection – and so on and so forth. No doubt this is done with the best of intentions pour encourager les autres, but could it be that the relationship between the inspector and the butcher has become a little too cosy? I have to admit that it does leave a funny taste in my mouth and that I would prefer something a bit more arms-length.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

I see very few restaurant scores, but I do see (occasional) frightening reports on poor restaurant hygeine. Should restaurants not be licensed to serve food? If they fail an inspection should they have their license put at risk unless they take convincing remedial actions? Local Authorities I believe are resposible for inspections, but seem to have inadequate resources. Charging the retaurants a fee for a routine inspection and any follow up inspections would resolve that and be in the consumers interests

Member
FSAFHRShollycow says:
22 July 2012

Everyone agrees that ‘safe food’ only should be served. The FSA FHRS system is a good concept. However, the system as it is, is not fair or just. It is subjective, open to personal subjective prejudice and is not consistent. A simple investigation of the available data easily highlights this shortfall. There is no third party review and the FSA ‘s audit is limited in its scope. Its control of FSA agents, that is local authority’s EHO is limited by financial and manpower resources. The four safeguards that are supposed to ensure a fair and just treatment of businesses, do not exist in reality. The right of reply is edited by the assessor, the right of appeal is done by a member of the same local government team. This could be a team of two or three. The right of a re-visit can be within six months but could be longer, dependent of the resource within the local authority. This delay is not fair or just, also detrimental to the businesses. The right of judicial review would be so expensive that even the heavy weights of the catering industry would not risk mounting a challenge. So, this safeguard might as well not exist. Because the system is herald as the ‘Sacred Cow’, no one is allowed to question the accountability of the FHRS system. Where there is no third party review, there is no accountability. Therefore the system is not secure, safe, fair or just.

Businesses do not survive by killing off their clients or customers. The FSA has responsibility for food safety and it is correct that food safety should be ensured. However, using a system that claims to be consistent nationwide when it is not; claims to have safeguards, when the safeguards do not exist in reality, is not fair or just.

Check out the New York rating system, the Los Angeles rating system, and the Auckland system. None of them claims to have comparability throughout their nation. Also, the Los Angeles rating system has an independent third party review. This third party review will cost no more than what is being implemented presently. No review equals no accountability. No accountability equals the system being not safe. ‘Safe food’ do not comes from an ‘Unsafe system’.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I routinely check food hygiene ratings when eating out. When on holiday in July I found an Indian restaurant that was displaying a rating of 5 at its premises and on its website despite having been given a rating of 4 following an inspection in February.

I sent an email to the Food Standards Agency and was asked to contact the relevant local authority. I replied to say that I thought it was unreasonable to expect me to pursue the matter.

Several months later and after considerable effort by both the FSA and the local authority, both the premises and website are displaying the correct food hygiene rating. I don’t expect that the business will have been fined for being uncooperative.

I do hope that it will not be long before premises in England have to display their hygiene ratings, which is already a requirement in Wales.

The FSA has a useful app to check the food hygiene ratings using a smartphone or tablet.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I was on holiday in Wales last week and it was very encouraging to see food hygiene ratings of 5 being widely used to encourage custom and every establishment displaying its rating – which is mandatory in Wales.

When is England going to catch up?

Profile photo of duncan lucas
Member

Maybe things have changed now but in the city where I worked I visited 1000,s of businesses installing/repairing equipment. One Indian restaurant had snails crawling over food parcels in a basement ,a Chinese restaurant had steel pails of fish in water outside the building open to flies etc . A third Chinese restaurant in a smaller town nearby was closed down as it had an Alsatian dog in its freezer . That is only the tip of the iceberg its amazing what goes on in businesses the public never see . I informed the owners of the Indian restaurant but they didnt seem to care. IT eventually prompted a major city council investigation resulting in the same city now has the tightest regulations and frequent visits you can find, many businesses closed down.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

It is difficult to know how common serious breaches of food hygiene regulations are and it concerns me that businesses are allowed to continue trading even when major problems are discovered. Random unannounced inspections with the threat of immediate closure would be an effective sanction but that seems unlikely to happen. It’s great that we have some conscientious people prepared to report problems they discover.