This is my last ever tax disc for a car. The UK has moved over to electronic vehicle duty enforcement and we no longer require to display the tax disc on our cars. There are still some around, because the last tax discs to expire will do so this autumn, and some people are leaving them on display.

The car itself is no more; I’ve sold it to a dealer in part-exchange for a pre-loved Skoda Octavia. The dealer will get bugger-all for it anyway, it had done 304,562 miles and the body-work had taken a battering from the tar sprayed on the road to the village.

Tax discs always had a splash of colour to them and no two consecutive ones ever seemed to be the same. I still have the tax discs for this car going back to August 2004, but not the first two that were on the car, which is a bit of a shame.

More fungi

This post was shared on Tumblr and has since gained over 30,000 notes. That makes it my most popular photo ever published, and it was an afterthought that I posted it in the first place.

Someone on Tumblr has identified the fungus as Honey Fungus (Amillaria spp.). Apparently they are edible, but I’m not going to try.

Patrick Mackie

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The risks of drinking raw milk

I’ve been getting into a bit of a discussion thread on my Facebook page after posting a link to an article at FoodWorld, about a study which reviewed outbreaks caused raw milk–milk that has not been pasteurized to kill disease-causing germs –in the United States that were reported to CDC from 2007-2012.

Interestingly, I’ve also become aware of a the recent scientific opinion on the public health risks related to the consumption of raw milk. The research was conducted by the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) panel on Biological Hazards and the full opinion can be found here. [EFSA Journal 2015;13(1):3940 [95 pp.]. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2015.3940]. In summary, the experts reveal some rather startling diseases can be caught from drinking raw milk.

Between 2007 and 2013, 27 outbreaks were due to the consumption of raw milk. Most of them – 21 – were caused by Campylobacter, one was caused by Salmonella, two by STEC (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli) and three by tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV).  A large majority of the outbreaks were due to raw cow’s milk, while a few of them originated from raw goat’s milk.

The Panel made a series of recommendations about improving the evidence-base and, most importantly, improving risk communication to consumers so that the hazards associated with consuming raw milk, where it remains legal to place it on the market, are better known and understood. You’ll be pleased to know that Scotland is the one enlightened part of the UK where the sale of raw milk is illegal. Funnily enough, Scotland no longer has outbreaks of disease associated with raw milk. That’s a public health win, because the purchasing decisions are generally made by well-meaning but ill-informed adults and the disease burden is mostly on young children and the elderly.

For a summary (up to 2012) of the situation in the UK regarding the consumption of raw milk and the consequent disease burden, you can read a paper submitted to the Board of the Food Standards Agency. It includes tables on the outbreaks in England & Wales (1992-2011) and Northern Ireland (1984-2011).

Old St Enoch subway station

Old St Enoch subway station

This is another night-time picture from my last trip to Glasgow, letting the camera do its own thing, with reasonable results.

The building stands in isolation in St Enoch Square, just north of the River Clyde in Glasgow’s city centre. Originally built in 1896, this was the ticket office to the subway (Glasgow’s own underground railway) and the headquarters of the Glasgow District Subway Railway Company. When the St Enoch subway station was redeveloped in the 1970s the building became redundant and is now a Caffè Nero coffee shop.

The building is a visual delight and is, of course, listed. The listing details can be found on the Historic Scotland Listed Buildings register.

Why Scotland needs a better food hygiene rating scheme

Read this (New York City’s restaurant letter-grading system improved food safety, researchers find) from the very excellent blog The Pump Handle.

Visible food hygiene rating systems can only be in the public interest to help consumers find safe places to eat or buy food. It’s also clear – and this study from New York is one example – that clear, accessible, graded food hygiene rating systems also act to stimulate improvement for businesses themselves.

In the UK, England, Northern Ireland and Wales have a six-point Food Hygiene Rating Scheme giving, effectively, rating scores between zero and five. Three is considered to be generally satisfactory, but zero means that “urgent improvement is required”. The consequences for a business in getting a poor rating, particularly zero, can be considerable in terms of lost trade and the effort needed to bring themselves back up to standard. For example, I read today of one kebab takeaway in Bridgwater, Somerset, where a zero rating put his business under serious threat from the economic consequences alone – you can read that story here. By contrast, a business with a five rating has “very good” standards of hygiene.

In Wales, it is now a legal requirement to display the food hygiene rating at the entrance to the premises, and this means that a food business operator can no longer avoid the public knowing how well he or she is doing in serving them safe food. This is only to the good.

fhis_passScotland, being Scotland, has a different system. Here premises are either rated as “Pass” or “Improvement Required”. Pass is roughly equivalent to the score of three elsewhere in the UK. There is a separate EatSafe award which better businesses can apply for, but it’s not an automatic part of the Food Hygiene Information Scheme. And the major difference is that premises are not obliged to display their rating certificates in a prominent position. That said, you can occasionally see a Pass certificate, but very rarely at the front door, and you’ll never see an Improvement Required certificate.

Improvement Required

All food hygiene ratings in the UK can be found by visiting the Food Standards Agency’s website at http://ratings.food.gov.uk and searching for the premise in question. The website even work with the location on your mobile phone to advise you which eateries to avoid.

So it’s pretty clear to me that two things need to happen in Scotland if we’re to drive up standards of food hygiene, properly inform consumers and use the power of the market as a driver for change:

1. Make the display of hygiene rating certificates at the front door mandatory. There are powers in the new Food (Scotland) Act 2015 to do just this, but it still needs the political will of ministers to make the necessary regulations.

2. Cease the use of the binary Pass/Improvement Required rating system and adopt a similar scheme to England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

A companionable cat

companionable_cat_1200c This chair, next to my desk, is where Nish always used to curl up when I was working (or loafing). It’s nice to have a cat’s company, and it was really pleasing when Tinkerbell assumed the position last night. She was only startled when the printer started chuntering, and it really grabbed her attention! wassat_1200c