The mischief-making press release from the Scottish Conservatives lying about food safety in schools

For those who haven’t seen the original media release from the Scottish Conservative party in which they make their mischief, I’ve added a copy of it here. Just in case it goes missing from their website … just in case.

Scottish_Conservatives_Press_Release_5_Jan_2014

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Brazen Scottish Conservatives refuse to admit their lying over food safety in Scottish schools

I’ve now heard from Tom Wall, the Digital Editor for Environmental Health News, that he’s had a response form the Scottish Conservative party about their mischief-making over food safety in Scottish schools. They do not deny the accusation of lying or mischief-making. Draw your own conclusions, folks.

In fact, you can email them at michael.tait@scottish.parliament.uk if you think their position is cowardly and contemptuous of the electorate – or if you think their position is virtuous and bold and you wish to congratulate them for sticking by their guns. Or you can follow their Twitter feed at @ScotTories, or even send them a message congratulating them on their brass neck.

The email exchange between Tom Wall and Michael Tait is below:

From: Michael.Tait@scottish.parliament.uk <Michael.Tait@scottish.parliament.uk>
Sent: Monday, March 17, 2014 11:40 PM
To: Tom Wall
Subject: RE: School standards press release ‘misleading’

Dear Tom,

We have no further response beyond the letter to Mr Mackie.

Regards

Michael

From: Tom Wall
Sent: 17 March 2014 12:54
To: Tait M (Michael)
Subject: Re: School standards press release ‘misleading’

Hi Michael

Would be useful to know if you are going to respond?

The FSA data provides no basis for claiming improvement notices were served and or making inferences about cleanliness of school kitchens. But your press release does both. Are you going to amend the press release?

Thanks

Tom

​Tom Wall
Environmental Health News
Digital Editor

Twitter @EHN_Online
Web www.ehn-online.com

Chartered Institute of Environmental Health
Chadwick Court 15 Hatfields London SE1 8DJ

Foodsafety mischief by Scottish Conservatives published in EHN_Online

My small but persistent request for evidence from the Scottish Conservatives about the data underlying their mischievous claims about food safety in Scottish schools has been picked up by the prestigious on-line environmental health journal, EHN Online. Tom Wall, the reporter who wrote the story based upon the posts in this blog, relates that even he couldn’t get the party to show their working. Perhaps shaming on a UK stage will now prompt a response. As always, watch this space.

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?

Show me your working

At last, I’ve had a reply from Mary Scanlon MSP, the Education Spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, about my questions regarding their claims relating to standards of food hygiene in Scottish schools. Her reply is as follows:

Dear Mr Mackie

Thank you for getting in contact concerning our recent release on hygiene failings in school kitchens.

I would like to apologise for the delay in responding to your requests. I completely accept that it should not take three emails before a response is forthcoming. I will look into why this was the case, but would point out that my office first became aware of your concerns only last week.

The purpose of the story was simple: to highlight the fact that many school kitchens across Scotland have been told to improve standards. Parents, quite rightly, take a keen interest in such matters and thus by publicising the data we were serving an important public interest.

That said, it should have been made clear that Environmental Health Officers, not the FSA, conducted the inspections. A number of EHOs have contacted me since the story was published and I have apologised for any offence that was caused. With future stories of this nature, proper representation will always be given.

Beyond that, I would point out that we never sought to give the impression that every facility was in breach of cleanliness guidelines. In fact, we made it clear that the “improvement required” ratings were broad in scope.

We also refrained from naming individual schools. We did this so as to ensure that serious breaches were not conflated with less serious (although still concerning) shortcomings.

We were also very careful not to exaggerate the findings. The data published on the FSA website contained numerous after school clubs held at facilities (such as churches) which cannot reasonably be expected to adhere to the same strict standards as nurseries, primary and secondary schools. In such instances we erred on the side of caution and omitted them from our results.

While I appreciate your argument that the news reports were not sufficiently nuanced, the story was intended to highlight a broad problem which will concern many parents, pupils and staff. As I argued at the time, and as you pointed out in your blog, all failings are issues of concern and this should not be lost sight of.

Once again, thank you for your correspondence.

 Yours Sincerely

Mary Scanlon MSP

They’re still not showing their working, so I’ve replied:

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

As I’ve said before, I’m not hopeful that they will disclose what they’d demand of any professional making the same claims. But we shall see.

Improvement required from the Scottish Conservatives

Improvement Required

I wrote previously about bad food safety statistics from the Scottish Conservatives and, a week later, about their failure to respond to my questions about their report. Since I’ve had no acknowledgement nor any response in the week since my last enquiry, I’ve now emailed Mary Scanlon MSP directly as follows:

To: Mary.Scanlon.MSP@scottish.parliament.uk
Subject: Food hygiene standards in Scottish schools

Dear Ms Scanlon,
Earlier this month the Scottish Conservatives published a media release on food hygiene standards in Scottish schools and which quoted you as the Education spokesperson for the party. I do not believe the conclusions reached in that report could be based on the reported data sources, nor that the report accurately represents the regulation of food safety in schools in Scotland. I have written a critique of that report here
.
I have twice attempted to obtain additional information about the report through the enquiries form on the Scottish Conservatives’ website, but have received neither an acknowledgement of my request nor a response. I am certain that you would expect better customer care of any public sector body and will be as surprised as I am that I have been ignored to date.
My second request was dated 11th January – one week ago – and was as follows:

On 6th January I made an enquiry which has, to date, neither been answered nor acknowledged. You can find the text of my question at the foot of this blog post: https://patrickmackie.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/bad-food-safety-statistics-from-the-scottish-conservative-party/
I’d appreciate a response.
Thank you

I am certain that you care as much as I do about the safety of food in schools AND the accuracy of the reporting of the facts. I should be grateful for your response to these enquiries.
Yours sincerely,
Patrick Mackie

Let’s see how long it takes to get a response and the answers this time. All correspondence will be posted here.

No response yet from the Scottish Conservatives

Improvement Required

On Monday I wrote about the inaccurate information about food safety in Scottish schools disseminated by the Scottish Conservatives, who are a sort of political party. I’ve not heard from them all week, so I made a follow-up enquiry just now. Let’s see how long they take to respond …

On 6th January I made an enquiry which has, to date, neither been answered nor acknowledged. You can find the text of my question at the foot of this blog post: https://patrickmackie.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/bad-food-safety-statistics-from-the-scottish-conservative-party/
I’d appreciate a response.
Thank you