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.

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