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, restaurant-goers in England are being short-changed by a lack of hygiene transparency.
Food hygiene in the UK 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’) depending on how clean that business is. A similar scheme is also in place in Scotland.
But while food hygiene standards are broadly uniform across the UK, restaurants in England are subject to far less rigorous rules than eateries in the rest of the UK as to how these zero to five scores are displayed.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, restaurants are required to 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, it is only right that potential customers should be made aware of this before entering the establishment.
In England, it is merely “recommended” that food hygiene scores are displayed. In practice, this means that restaurants with good scores display them prominently, while those with poor scores shamefully hide them away from potential customers.
So in England, there is little to motivate failing establishments to improve standards. Although food hygiene ratings for individual restaurants and pubs can be found online, Lichfield has an excellent website, the last thing anyone thinks of doing on a night out is scouring through websites on a mobile.
So many people are eating food that is prepared in unsatisfactory conditions, without being aware of it. There is no doubt that a number of these customers would re-evaluate their choices if the full facts were made clear to them.
This is why I believe that the requirements which already exist for the rest of the UK are extended to England as well. By forcing English restaurant and pub owners to display their hygiene scores on the doors, there is an incentive to improve standards for those falling behind, and keep them high for those who achieve top marks.
There is no logical reason why this discrepancy exists. When I first raised this issue two years ago, the then chair of the FSA Tim Bennett agreed with me on the need for tougher food hygiene laws in England. With the FSA themselves in favour of mandatory display of hygiene ratings, it is risible that nothing has been done.
The mandatory display of food hygiene ratings is also overwhelmingly supported by consumers. A recent survey by the food safety website Checkit found that a staggering 98% of respondents were in favour of such a move, with a further 91% saying they would “always or often” choose to eat at a restaurant with high scores.
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. We should learn from the Welsh!
There should be no excuses for unhygienic eateries and a lack of transparency in 21st century England. Consumers have a right to know whether the food they are eating has been prepared in a clean environment.
The best way of punishing those restaurants that refuse to shake 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.
Making the display of hygiene scores mandatory in England would be a subtle but effective way of combating the problem. Currently, only 58% of English eateries have the highest food hygiene rating. We can do better than that. With broad support and clear benefits, the only people who stand to lose from mandatory scores on the doors are the owners of unclean restaurants that refuse to get their act together.
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.