Q: Would you eat in a restaurant rated zero for hygiene? A: Yes, but you won’t know it

Pic: Pixabay
Pic: Pixabay

Tom McGhie and Harry Thompson take a look how FSA hygiene ratings work, why they exist, what to be aware of, and how those of us eating out can make the most of them once lockdown is lifted.

For most of us, the thought of a zero hygiene rating evokes certain images; food strewn onto the floor, flies hovering over an overflowing bin bag, rats leaping with wild abandon in between ovens and pans. Perhaps even a grim-faced chef with a Marlborough dropping betwixt mottled lips, stirring a giant pot of gunge coloured gruel.

The green Food Standards Agency (FSA) sticker nestled in the corner of a restaurant window is a familiar sight. From time to time, you might notice a good score on your way in, allowing a feeling of reassurance to embolden your pending order. But you could also be forgiven for failing to flag it – especially in the grip of hunger. Anything less than a score of four-out-of-five is rarely seen; spotting a zero is unlikely, as businesses in England are not required by law to show their results. After all, if your food business failed various hygiene tests, would you broadcast this to the world?

In the four ELL boroughs, an alarming eight per cent of restaurants and eateries have this particular honour bestowed upon them. So, food businesses either receive a top rating or quietly slip their newly gifted one-star sticker into their FSA-approved recycling bin. This trend begs the question: what is an FSA rating, why do they matter, and can we trust them?

“The scheme helps consumers choose where to eat out or shop for food by providing information about the hygiene standards in food outlets,” says Angela Towers, the FSA Food Hygiene Rating Team chief. “Our advice to people when choosing a restaurant, takeaway or food shop, or ordering food online, is to check that the business has a food hygiene rating and choose only those with a higher rating – at least three or above.”

With the outbreak of COVID-19, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s unprecedented introduction of lockdown measures in the UK, increasingly, the onus has fallen on delivery services to feed the nation. 

It may be easy to spot an FSA sticker in a shop window, but this isn’t so straightforward when ordering food online, especially in the current climate. Food standards amongst delivery operations are of greater importance now. 

A rating of three is the threshold for a pass – the restaurant meets the FSA’s hygiene standards and is “generally satisfactory” in terms of its criteria – while anything below is a fail. Any restaurant deemed a fail will usually be expected to address urgent concerns raised in the inspection within 28 days.  

In the event of an inspector discovering an “imminent risk to public health” – if they make particularly shocking discoveries during their investigations – they can close the business down until the problems are solved.

In Northern Ireland and Wales, it is compulsory for restaurants to show their ratings – which has increased the chances of places being truthful about what they have been awarded by the FSA. Research shows that 87 and 84 per cent of restaurants in Wales and Northern Ireland respectively display their ratings somewhere on the property. This means that they are far more likely to be telling the truth than restaurants in England, where merely 52 per cent of establishments display their FSA rating on the premises. For a certain amount of truthfulness about hygiene, it seems that the best route is the mandatory display of scores.

The passing of the 1999 Food Standards Act established the FSA and introduced two new criminal offences for businesses that fail to meet standards: providing food deemed “injurious to health” and selling produce “unfit for human consumption”. These two new offences underpin much of the legal powers of today’s FSA.

Now headed by Chief Executive Emily Miles, who took over the role in September 2019, the FSA It is a quango employing roughly 1000 people in 2019. As part of an ongoing five-year plan, first introduced by then Chancellor George Osborne, it has had its £82m budget maintained at the same level since 2015 – but, this could be subject to change this year as the plan comes to an end, potentially seeing more cash directed to the agency.

An FSA spokesperson told Eastlondonlines: “We’re committed to making the display of ratings mandatory in England, just as it is in Wales and Northern Ireland. We aim to put our proposals for the necessary legislation to the new government early this year.”

Preventative measures such as mandatory display of ratings are high on the list of things which might stop restaurants lying to consumers.

Research done by NFU Mutual found that in 2019, 98 per cent of respondents were influenced by the FSA’s hygiene ratings, with 81 per cent saying they wouldn’t go to a premises if it held a rating of two or less. Ninety-one per cent thought it should be mandatory for a business to display their latest scores in their shop windows.  

It’s clear to see why hygiene ratings matter to those in food businesses. NFU’s research found that on average consumers are willing to spend £17.31 on an adult meal at a five-star rated restaurant. At the same time, they were only willing to spend £2.26 on an adult meal in a two-star rated venue. 

With the ratings meaning a lot to customers, the pressure is on businesses to score highly. But this can make the appeal of foul play all more attractive if you don’t get what you want. In 2018, Derby-based businessman, Rusham Ahmed, gained notoriety for displaying a fake five-star rating for his shop in a local magazine, when it had actually been rated as a zero by the FSA.  

Ahmed was eventually made to pay over £4,000 in fines and prevented from being involved in the running of any business for five-years.  

With the capacity to deliver such stringent punishment, the pressure is on the FSA to ensure their ratings are fair and done to give consumers honest, accurate reports without damaging businesses unjustly. A spokesperson for the FSA told Eastlondonlines there are several safeguards in place to ensure no incorrect ratings are handed out.

Despite this, the reality of restaurants faking their rating is part of a broader problem throughout the country. In April 2016, a company called Four Brothers was taken to court because a restaurant under the company’s ownership, Moza Derby, had been given a food hygiene rating of one. Subsequently, however, three adverts appeared in a magazine which claimed the establishment held a five-star rating. The Four Brothers company were charged with engaging in unfair commercial practices and forced to pay a fine of over £3000. After news of this reached the public, revenue fell, and the establishment had to shut due to insolvency issues.

“They shouldn’t lie like that, it’s outrageous – consumers have a right to know these things,” said Sarah Purmphrey, 24, from Tower Hamlets. 

Purmphrey works as a waitress in a five-star hygiene rated restaurant in Lewisham, a place where safe preparation of food holds utmost importance. “Everyone in the kitchen wears hairnets, or if you go outside for a cigarette you wash your hands when you come back in – otherwise you get shouted at!” Purmphrey admits, however, that the five-star rating her place of work obtained was down to days of preparation before an FSA inspector walked into their building. 

“The owners had a date that the inspector was coming so we just went mad with sponges and cleaned everything before they arrived,” said Purmphrey. “When they came in, everything was pretty much spotless.” This highlights an example where an establishment, given the right amount of warning, can transform a lower level restaurant, into somewhere which appears clean in its approach to food preparation. Purmphrey admits that this does detract from the validity of an FSA rating.

“Most restaurants, if they’re sensible, can appear clean for the inspector. I don’t think it’s lying if they do things like that, it’s just smart as a business.”

If they feel they have been judged unfairly, businesses have several options. They can request an appeal or a re-visit (although some local authorities in England charge for this) and businesses have the right to contact their local authority to ask for an explanation of their rating. 

The FSA uses the “Brand Standard” to ensure consistency between local authorities and individual inspectors to nurture confidence in the Hygiene Rating Scheme. 

At least 28 days before opening, a new food business needs to register with their local authority, at which point the wheels will be set in motion to arrange their first food inspection. 

Food Hygiene Ratings are not intended to unfairly harm businesses, but rather provide consumers with the tools they need to make informed choices about the places they get their food from.

However, there seems to be an underlying lack of transparency throughout the restaurant industry in England muddying the waters, and the number of people getting food poisoning every year seems to be on the rise. 

In 2015, the then Chancellor George Osborne froze the FSA’s annual budget at £85.4m. With this limitation due to be coming to an end coinciding with the outbreak of COVID-19, changes to the FSA’s practice may be on the horizon. What is clear however, is that the introduction of mandatory scores on the doors, seems like a sure-fire way to improve the service. 

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

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