Do Food Standards Agency Ratings matter to consumers?

image credit: Harry Thompson

Food hygiene ratings exist so consumers can make more informed decisions about the places they choose to eat. But what happens when your favourite takeout suddenly gets a zero rating, would you remain a loyal customer? Of course, it depends on why a restaurant fails a Food Standards Agency (FSA) inspection (by scoring two or lower). The problem is, you can only tell so much from a number, FSA ratings need more context if consumers are going to take them seriously.

The FSA gives businesses a rating from five to zero which is displayed at their premises and online so the public can make more informed choices about where to buy and eat food.

In Croydon alone, five Morley’s fried chicken shops have an FSA rating of two or lower (four of which scored one) and three more are awaiting inspections after recent fails. Despite this, consumers still flock to the popular South-London franchise for its dose of fries, wings and waffles.

One such Morley’s in Woodside, Croydon, boasts a four-star customer review rating on Google, with comments like this one from Suzy F. R: “I have tried a lot of fried chicken’s shops around Croydon, this place is one of the best! Great seasoned chicken. Good deals. Good customer service. Most people go there for takeaway but it’s fine to eat in as well.”

However, the same Morley’s store was recently awarded a food hygiene rating of one following an inspection on November 25 2019. Details of the inspection were obtained via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to Croydon Council. The findings describe a very different Morley’s to the one lauded by numerous happy customers.

In the report, the inspector says: “Ensure dirty water is poured out of the bucket after finishing cleaning,” and advises the store to “pest-proof all gaps” to minimise the risk of pests occupying stock rooms. Another comment stated that the staff toilet needed to be “thoroughly cleaned.” The business, which also offers delivery services, is now preparing for a re-inspection. Morley’s has not responded to Eastlondlines request for comment.

Rachel Hodgson, an FSA spokesperson, told Eastlondlines: “All businesses should be able to achieve the top rating of 5. If they do not, the safety officer will outline the improvements that they need to make and advise on how to achieve a higher rating.”

However, there are five more Morley’s in Croydon that have failed FSA inspections but still enjoy positive reviews online. An Eastlondonlines survey found that 44.3% of people would still eat at their favourite restaurant or takeaway even if they knew it failed an FSA inspection.

The FSA has conducted its consumer awareness research and found that 73% of respondents trusted the FSA to do its job. In another poll, the FSA found that 64% of people knew about hygiene standards because of FSA stickers on shop windows.

Although, it is not a legal obligation to display FSA ratings and with nearly 800 failing restaurants in Eastlondlines boroughs, customers need other ways to get the assurances around food safety they need.

In an Eastlondonlines survey, we found that 84.5% of respondents valued customer reviews online more than FSA ratings when deciding where to eat.

image credit – Eastlondonlines survey

On November 08, 2019, an FSA inspection was conducted at Carluccio’s restaurant in Canary Wharf and much like Morley’s, the restaurant is littered with good reviews online.

As a popular high street chain, before its recent administration amidst the Coronavirus outbreak, most customers would trust Carluccio’s based on the fact that there are many of them across the country. The Canary Wharf branch appeared to be no different. However, following its last inspection, the business received a rating of two from the FSA. 

After approaching Carluccio’s for comment, their PR team issued the following statement to Eastlondonlines: “The EHO visited in November on a day our boiler had suddenly broken and we scored a two on a technicality – this has now been fixed and we await the EHO visit to re-score the restaurant.  We pride ourselves on the highest levels of hygiene.”

Most consumers would forgive Carluccio’s for this; it sounds like rotten luck. What is becoming clear is the need for clarification on these matters. The FSA has stated its desire to make the display of ratings mandatory and 80% of people Eastlondlines surveyed agreed that should be the case.

Although it might be argued that mandatory measures should go a step further; after obtaining details of the Carluccio’s inspection from November 2019 through an FOI request, Eastlondonlines can reveal that there was no reference to a broken boiler in the documents. The report did, however, mention the need for Carluccio’s, “To continue to control and eradicate mouse activity” and to keep their bins away from the wash hands basin. Carluccio’s have not responded to Eastlondlines request for comment following this discovery.

Above all, consumers need clarity. Respondents to the Eastlononlines survey have varying ways of assessing hygiene standards and FSA stickers rank second to bottom in the below chart.

image credit – Eastlondonlines survey

The chart compares the different ways consumers judge the standard of hygiene at the places they eat, with the majority relying on the general appearance of the establishment and online reviews.

It is all well and good, making it mandatory to display FSA ratings, but until the reasons for those ratings are made public then people will continue to prioritise online reviews and recommendations above the FSA.   

This is day three of our series on food hygiene. Check out the rest of the series here: #foodforthought 

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