Since January 2006 European food safety legislation has dictated food businesses in member states ‘self regulate’ their food processes under a HACCP based system. Now in the UK consumers are being urged by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to check the food hygiene rating of food businesses as a prequel to potential mandatory public display of food hygiene ratings. We look at what this means for food operators and looks at the power consumers can wield.
The Food Hygiene Rating Scheme was developed and launched by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2010 in order to assist their key objective of improving food safety.
The scheme, which applies to all food outlets such as hotels, cafes and restaurants, enables consumers to use ratings to make informed choices about where to eat or shop for food.
Environmental Health Practitioners award the rating during the inspection of food businesses, by applying a rating system laid down in a Code of Practice, assessing three criteria:
- Hygiene (includes practices such as temperature control, cross contamination and personal hygiene)
- Structure (includes cleanliness and condition of the fabric and equipment)
- Confidence in management (includes track record, systems, local management and knowledge)
The rating given ranges from FIVE (very good) to ZERO (urgent improvement necessary). Scotland runs a similar ‘Food Hygiene Information Scheme’ of ‘pass’ or ‘improvement required’. Ratings are published at www.food.gov.uk/ratings, so it is easy for consumers to check online, and additionally the food business is given a sticker and certificate.
The scheme is viewed as a success so far, having worked to drive standards upward – more than 93% of food outlets are rated THREE or above.
We have found that the rating scheme has really motivated our clients to achieve high standards. When they are rated FIVE they enjoy the recognition for their teams and realise the rating can only be good for business. Although five years ago a rating of FOUR was considered favourable, often we have found food outlets can be disappointed with a FOUR, striving for the ultimate FIVE.
However, we recognise that there are still a proportion of food businesses out there with low ratings, that don’t care so much, and do not perceive that the low rating is of detriment to their business. The proportion of businesses that display their rating is unsurprisingly lower amongst those with lower ratings. Perhaps these are the food outlets for which mandatory display and continually increasing consumer awareness of the scheme will finally have an effect.
Display of ratings via certificates and stickers by food businesses is at present voluntary, in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
In 2012 Wales became the first part of the UK in which it is a legal requirement for a food business to display its food hygiene rating. Here, ratings have to be displayed in a prominent position or businesses face a fine. The mandatory display, sometimes harsh in its transparency, has had a noticeable effect, especially in driving improvements in weaker establishments. Support for mandatory display is unsurprisingly divided amongst food businesses; with support being favoured more by higher rated businesses. Food businesses have also raised concerns regarding compulsory display, such as impact on their trade if forced to display the sticker/certificate.
In Northern Ireland, mandatory display is also likely to be brought in during the latter half of 2016. Whilst not mandatory in England, the FSA’s 2015-2020 strategy favours mandatory display in England, and is currently exploring implementation; having observed success in Wales and with mounting pressure from food safety inspectors and local councils.
Regardless of mandatory display, public awareness of the schemes is increasing. During February 2016 the Food Standards Agency launched a ‘Where’s The Sticker?’ campaign and the FSA and local authorities continue to urge consumers to ‘look before they book’ plus check the food hygiene ratings sticker or check ratings via Apps before frequenting any eateries.
It could be argued perhaps not all consumers care about food hygiene ratings - as long as a restaurant or cafe satisfies other criteria such as food quality and service – but surely most do and in this competitive market it is likely that for the majority of consumers, when given the choice of outlets, they would choose a FIVE over a TWO! So, with public awareness of the scheme increasing, isn’t it inevitable that consumers will increasingly vote with their feet, encouraging more and more businesses to strive and attain and retain a rating of FIVE in a competitive market!
It has never been more important for food businesses to achieve and maintain a high rating,” warns Fiona Sinclair, “as this will increasingly have a direct impact on attracting customers, who could also report back to an EHO. Food businesses therefore need to continually evaluate their food hygiene best practices, review standards and ensure all staff are competent and remain diligent.
While an establishment could continue to trade with a low food hygiene rating, rest assured that customers will vote more and more with their feet and the local EHO will also take considerably more interest in monitoring how they operate. Review your food hygiene now, gain the highest rating you can and display your sticker with pride, showing you have nothing to hide.
Fiona Sinclair is a director of food safety specialists STS. For more guidance on food safety, improving your safety rating and the management of health and safety visit sts-solutions.com