Restaurants should not be able to hide hygiene ratings

Summer is here. For many people, that means more meals out – often in towns they have not visited before. Unfortunately, though, restaurant-goers in England are being short-changed by a lack of hygiene transparency.

Food hygiene is regulated by the Food Standards Agency. Businesses that serve food in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are graded according to the FSA’s food hygiene rating scheme, which awards a score between 0 (“urgent improvement necessary”) and 5 (“very good”). A similar scheme is also in place in Scotland. Restaurant owners should all have Food Hygiene certificates to ensure that they are cooking food in a clean, safe environment. They should also make sure that their kitchens are adequately equipped to enable chefs to prepare and store food safely so that it stays fresh and fit to consume. One things that a restaurant kitchen should absolutely have is appropriate refrigeration services to make sure that things like meat, fish, and dairy are all in temperature-controlled environments so that they do not develop any harmful bacteria that could make patrons ill.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, restaurants must display their green food hygiene score in clear view in a “prominent place – such as the front door, entrance or window”. I call that “scores on the doors”. This is simply common sense. If a restaurant’s hygiene standards are not up to scratch and did not pass their food safety audit, it is only right that potential customers should be made aware of this before entering.

In England, it is merely “recommended” that the scores are displayed. In practice, this means that restaurants with poor scores hide them from potential customers so there is little to motivate failing establishments to improve. Although ratings for individual restaurants and pubs can be found online, the last thing anyone thinks of doing on a night out is scouring through websites on their phone.

There is no logical reason for this discrepancy. When I first raised this issue two years ago, Tim Bennett, then chairman of the FSA, agreed with me on the need for tougher food hygiene laws in England. It is risible that nothing has been done.

The mandatory display of food hygiene ratings is also overwhelmingly supported by consumers. A survey by the food safety website Checkit found that 98% of respondents were in favour of such a move.

In Wales, the percentage of food businesses receiving top marks for hygiene has jumped from 45% to 63% since they were forced to show their scores on the doors. The best way of punishing those restaurants that refuse to shape up is through the free market. Losing customers as a result of a poor food hygiene score will do more damage than visits from government health inspectors ever could.

Good hygiene is not even difficult, so those with low scores could easily improve with only minimal effort. If a restaurant won’t clean itself, they can even use services like R-Zero Systems to clean for them. There is no excuse for poor hygiene, but some restaurants simply do not care.

At present, only 58% of English eateries have the highest food hygiene rating. We can do better. If the English want to eat at an unclean restaurant then that is their prerogative, but they should at least be given the same opportunity to make that decision as their Welsh, Irish and Scottish compatriots.

Food and Drink