Let’s be clear – the Scottish Conservatives lied about food safety in schools

I’m a patient old Hector, but five weeks is plenty long enough for me to wait for the Scottish Conservatives to offer up the evidence behind their unfounded assertions about food safety in Scottish school kitchens. They may well be right in thinking that I’m an insignificant blogger – and my stats wouldn’t disagree – but that’s not the point. I care about evidence-based environmental health, and I care about the press and the public being given accurate information based on reliable sources about food safety and other matters of public health interest. In fact, it’s more important that the press are given accurate information, because the majority of media outlets simply don’t have either the scientifically-trained staff, the time or the inclination to check the assertions that are presented to them as facts.

And this is where the Scottish Conservatives fall down. I’m going to reiterate the whole sorry saga just for the record, although it is set out in previous posts on this blog, here, here and here.

Eight weeks ago, a number of newspapers published – probably verbatim (because they say almost exactly the same things) – a press release from the Scottish Conservative party, who were trying to make mischief about the state of food hygiene in Scottish schools. I say “make mischief” because that is the only conclusion that can be drawn from their refusal to produce evidence of the assertions that they made.

This is what I wrote in my first post on the subject:

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. <snip>

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.

I wrote to the Scottish Conservatives asking for more information and received no reply. A further enquiry elicited a response on behalf of Mary Scanlon MSP, the party’s Education Spokesman, which is reproduced in full here. That reply failed to provide any evidence for the misleading statements widely reproduced in the media, and which caused unnecessary alarm for parents and consternation for diligent school meals operations across Scotland, so I asked again:

Dear Mrs Scanlon,
Thank you for your response and I know it’s useful to be alerted to problems with particular channels of communication.
As to the interpretation of the FSA ratings data, your own quote stated that:
(a) improvement notices were served, and
(b) many of the adverse ratings were for cleanliness.
Neither statement can be derived from the rating data, which is why I have requested a copy of the study on which your media report and quoted statements were made. I wish to verify whether your researcher has done a good job in sourcing and interpreting the data which was used in your story. This is not a matter of nuance, but facts, and the public deserve to be provided with accurate facts, even though there may be disagreement on their interpretation or the proper response to them.
Thank you in anticipation,
Yours sincerely,
Patrick Mackie

I’ve heard nothing from them.

So: in the absence of evidence to demonstrate that the party’s researchers were using any source of information other that the FSA’s food hygiene ratings website, I confidently declare that the following statements made by the Scottish Conservatives were made-up and therefore mendacious, a word which my dictionary defines as given to deception or  falsehood, or in plain English, a pack of lies:

Erroneous assertion 1: School kitchens are inspected by the Food Standards Agency. See above. Okay, I can be a bit generous here and let this pass as sloppy research, but even so …

Lie 2: That any conclusion could be drawn from the ratings data about why school kitchens failed to achieve the Pass standard and that some schools failed on the grounds of cleanliness. See above

Lie 3: That any conclusion could be drawn from the ratings data about whether or not Improvement Notices had been served on any of the school kitchens inspected. See above

Now, I am perfectly happy to change my interpretation of the statements of the Scottish Conservatives and retract the allegation of mendacity/lying if they provide me the evidence for the statements made, i.e. that they have reliable sources of data other than the food hygiene ratings published on the FSA’s website. As a wise man once said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

Politicians, huh?

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