The Scottish Conservatives have published a report (well, a media release) on food hygiene standards in Scottish schools. This was picked up by the BBC, STV, The Herald and The Sunday Post, amongst others.
The summary of the story is, that over the period from 2009 to 2013, 83 schools, nurseries and after-school clubs received “Improvement Required” food hygiene ratings. This means that the establishments failed to meet the “broadly compliant” rating scores for the rating elements of food hygiene, premises condition or confidence in management. Obviously, this is a matter of concern, but it does not indicate that any of these sites were serving unsafe food – a site could fail to meet the requisite standard simply by failing to maintain adequate records of temperature checks, or having some structural problems, which are not themselves directly hazardous to the safety of food being prepared. More serious deficiencies would include failure of cross-contamination controls, but this cannot be interpreted from the food hygiene rating given to a site after inspection.
There are a number of interesting aspects to this story, so let’s deal with the factual errors first.
All the reports refer to “FSA [Food Standards Agency] inspections”
This is wrong. The FSA do not carry out food safety/food hygiene inspections of caterers in Scotland, nor in any other part of the UK. This work is done by local authority environmental health officers (EHOs) and specialist-qualified food safety officers.
Food hygiene ratings in Scotland (and the rest of the UK) are published on the FSA’s website at http://ratings.food.gov.uk, which is an easily searchable and up-to-date resource giving information about the most recent inspection outcome for a catering establishment. In Scotland, unlike other parts of the UK, there is a binary rating system of “Pass” or “Improvement Required”. There is no requirement for a food business to display the certificate and they are, in fact, rarely seen on the streets. Click on the logo for more information on the
Facilities in Glasgow, Highlands and the Scottish Borders were among the worst offenders for cleanliness in their catering facilities.
This statement about cleanliness cannot be interpolated from the food hygiene ratings website, which is the only source given for the data in the study.
Parents will be horrified to know their child may have been served a meal from a facility that inspectors saw fit to serve with an improvement notice.
This quote is from Mary Scanlon MSP, who is the party’s education spokeswoman. Unless the study carried out specifically identified whether a Hygiene Improvement Notice had been served under the Food Hygiene (Scotland) Regulations 2006, it will be wrong (a) to assume that an Improvement Required rating would automatically be accompanied by a formal notice under the regulations or (b) to conflate the Improvement Required rating with being an improvement notice, which it is not.
The intervention that follows an unsatisfactory food safety inspection can range from informal advice, to an informal letter, to a formal hygiene improvement notice, all the way through to emergency closure of the premises or prosecution by the Crown. None of that can be interpreted simply from the food hygiene rating data on the FSA’s website.
There are a couple of things that worry me here. Firstly, the suggestion that a political party which has local councillors in Scotland and which has political aspirations in Scotland appears not to understand how food safety regulation operates in the country, nor how the important public information in the hygiene rating scheme actually works. Secondly, professional media organisations like the Beeb and some of Scotland’s major newspapers, should also know better. It looks as if the media release has simply been regurgitated without any critical journalistic analysis, and probably not by professionally-trained journalists either.
I’ve decided that I would like to get to the bottom of the story myself, so I’ve made the following request to the Scottish Conservatives:
Your media release “Many school kitchens do not meet hygiene laws”, as presented on your website, appears to suggest that food premises are inspected by the Food Standards Agency, and this is repeated by the BBC’s reporting of your story. Is the web version of this story the same as the one received by the media and, if not, please can you email me a copy of the original media release.
Additionally, please can you email me report on the study on which your media release was based, including the methodology and the data obtained.
If I get anything back, I’ll let you know. I’m not hopeful.