Are environmental health officer punishing independent restaurant businesses too readily for minor offences? And if so, what can operators do about it? Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports
"Sometimes it feels as though they're not on your side. We should be working together to promote good standards of food hygiene, but occasionally you get the feeling they're not working with you."
So says Adam Bennett, chef-director at the Cross at Kenilworth. He's referring to environmental health officers (EHOs) after the Michelin-starred Warwickshire pub saw its rating plunge from four to one in January.
Despite raised issues being rectified in under a week, the unenviable low score remained in place for close to six months. The Cross bounced back with top marks when it was eventually re-inspected in July.
Bennett isn't the first chef to feel that way, and nor will he be. Chef-restaurateur Mark Sargeant took to Instagram last month to slam "the powers that be" after his Folkestone restaurant was downgraded from five to two over cooking procedures that were deemed "unsafe" by the EHO (he declined to comment further when contacted by The Caterer).
High food price inflation, the weak pound and spiralling business rates mean the cost burden of paying to play is one that many independent operators can ill afford. So is it fair to make a business with quickly and easily resolvable issues wait so long for re-evaluation?
Does a nought to five rating system best reflect the delicate nuances of a complicated assessment of an operator's environmental health compliance? And how can the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) food hygiene ratings system (FHRS) be developed to ensure neither consumer confidence or a company's credentials are compromised?
The FHRS was introduced in 2010 to provide consumers the information they need to eat out with confidence. The standards were designed to be achievable by businesses and the scoring system simple to understand by the public, with a top mark of five representing full compliance.
And according to John Barnes, former head of local delivery at the FSA and a strategic adviser at Shield Safety Group, there are many reasons to regard the FHRS as a huge success.
He says: "I've been in this business for quite some time. FHRS has given rise to the biggest improvements in food hygiene standards and behaviour that I have seen in my whole career."
His view is supported by FSA data, which found that 95% of rated businesses achieved a rating of three (generally satisfactory) or above in September 2017. That figure was 91% in September 2013. Ratings of five (very good) have increased from 53% to 67% over the same period. And these benefits are not lost on operators.
"I can see the logic of FHRS. The positives are it theoretically gives customers confidence in the standards behind the scenes," says Bennett.
"But my issue is it's a bit of a blunt instrument. It's trying to illustrate something quite complex with a six-point system that doesn't really give the full picture." (See panel, page 51.)
He suggests a secondary colour-coded system, with one colour perhaps representing the scores for technicalities and another highlighting dangerous practices. And while he's not the only operator who would like to see the scoring system overhauled, not everyone agrees on the best way to do so.
A London-based independent restaurateur (who spoke on condition of anonymity) called for the scores to be given out of 10 instead, because "to lose a point when the scores go from zero to five is pretty dramatic".
"About a year after we opened, an EHO marched in right in the middle of what turned out to be the busiest lunch service we've had, before or since," he says.
"We had to take our head chef and general manager off the floor to deal with this person and, as it was a busy lunch, we had temporarily run out of hand towels in the dispensers. Black mark. Secondly, some idiot had not obeyed our very strict instructions and used a vac-packer for the wrong product. They knocked us down from five to two for that."
Restaurateur and former Restaurant Association chair Michael Gottlieb argues for a pass or fail system, as in Scotland's separate Food Hygiene Inspection Scheme.
"If you ask a customer if they'd like to know the hygiene rating, the answer is 'of course'. But would they like to know the detail? 'Well, no, not really'," says Gottlieb. "Is it safe or is it not safe? That's what I want to know. And the public won't think that when they see a score. They'll think a place is not as clean as it should be."
Consumer research suggests Gottlieb might be on to something. A report published in June by commercial insurer NFU Mutual found that 88% of people asked said they are in favour of a law that requires the compulsory display of ratings stickers in England (mandatory display is already in place in Wales and Northern Ireland). Almost half of customers (44%) said they would turn away from a restaurant, café, takeaway or pub if a food hygiene rating of less than four was on the door, while a score of two or below would put off 73%.
So has there been any discussion around making changes to the way the ratings are structured? According to Nina Purcell, director of regulatory delivery at the FSA, the options were investigated before FHRS was launched.
"These pilot schemes were subjected to extensive consumer testing, which informed the rating scheme we have now. Representatives from industry, of the scheme," she explains.
"We believe it helps consumers make informed choices and benefits good food businesses, which see more custom. It also acts as an incentive for businesses with poorer standards to improve."
Purcell is not wrong. A low score has the potential to damage the reputation and bottom line of a business, which operators are keen to avoid. The Cross at Kenilworth had enjoyed a steady month-on-month upwards trend in terms of turnover for the year prior to January.
After that, growth stalled when the poor FHRS score was widely reported. "I think new customers weren't willing to take a risk when they saw the lower rating," says Bennett. "But existing customers were happy."
With mandatory scores on the doors looming menacingly on the horizon, how does Bennett think the business would have been affected if the Cross was legally obligated to display the rating in the front window?
"That would have been very damaging to us, to be honest. If you're given a score of one and you have to display that for two weeks, that's one thing. Especially if you put the issues right immediately," he says. "But if you have to display it for six months while you're waiting for a revisit, even though the problem has been rectified, I don't think that's fair at all."
The time it takes for EHOs to get around all of the restaurants in their area is influenced by the resource available or, as is increasingly the case, the lack thereof. Local authorities fund EHOs - not the FSA - and in this ongoing era of austerity it's no secret that their budgets are increasingly stretched. And this may explain why the number of full-time equivalent staff in food hygiene posts for 2016/17 has seen a reduction of 2.7% year on year, falling from 1,709 to 1,663, continuing a downward trend seen by the FSA.
In March the FSA approved a new scheme that allows restaurants to pay their local authority for a swifter re-inspection, which, on the face of it, is a welcome development. In an ideal world, Bennett says he'd rather not fork out to get the EHO back on-site, but "being pragmatic, we would pay".
Fees will be set at local authority level and are intended to cover the cost of re- inspection, but there are concerns about it just becoming an exercise in revenue generation.
"It's just an incentive for the council to earn money," says Gottlieb. "They'll downgrade operators who won't wait, so they'll pay £200 to be inspected again earlier than normal."
Our anonymous restaurateur agrees: "They're going to go around with a magnifying glass and try and find every little thing that they can to add up to a lower score so that restaurants will have to pay to get them back again.
Barnes insists that won't happen, because it's in a local authority's interests to help local business thrive. Instead, he is more concerned with ensuring the long- term viability of FHRS and suggests the whole funding model could be due a shake-up.
"We need to make sure we have a system in three years' time that is sustainable and I do not believe we can ask local authorities to keep doing all these inspections," he says.
Councillors will want to target their increasingly limited resources in the most effective way. This might prompt valid question marks over whether local authorities will want to spend stretched budgets on looking at a business that was fully compliant 18 months ago and has been looked at six times since then by an independent organisation."
Barnes is referring to the increasingly common practice by hospitality operators of employing a third-party private inspection body to keep them on their toes. He would like to see a co-regulatory approach that takes these inspections into account.
Businesses that are considered high risk are usually inspected by EHOs every six months.
Those deemed low risk, because they are small or generally very compliant, might be visited every 18 months, or even every three years. The problem is, says Barnes, that some of these dated scores might not best reflect the current situation.
"No one is saying businesses should self-regulate. Tens of thousands of caterers get private inspection bodies like Shield Safety Group and NSF in quarterly to give them 'ghost ratings' of what an EHO would find if they were to visit," he says.
"But a ghost rating might be five, while the last official inspection three years prior resulted in a four. An operator would ask why the local authority doesn't take into account the information that's been provided by a private body."
This is something the FSA is already looking into doing through its Regulating Our Future programme, because the existing approach is "outdated" and "increasingly unsustainable".
"We see an expanded, formal role for the private assurance schemes, and we want to incorporate the assurance they provide in a structured way," explains Purcell.
"However, before that can happen we will have to be satisfied that any private assurance we take into account meets the standards that we will set and that appropriate arrangements are in place to regulate it."
Will these changes create a perfect hygiene rating system? And with so many stakeholders, is a perfect system even possible? That remains to be seen. Until then, operators will just have to keep up the compliance. Because you never know what day the inspector will call.
What brought the Cross at Kenilworth down to a rating of two?
The Cross at Kenilworth saw its food hygiene rating drop from four to two in January because of a misunderstanding around sous vide training records, a misplaced bucket of ice and a cloth on the floor. But the issue that likely had the biggest impact on the pub's score was the incorrect use of a vacuum-packing
machine. And it's a good example of the scoring system being ill-equipped
to tell the whole story.
One of the pub's two vac-pack machines broke down just before Christmas, with the holiday period affecting efforts to source parts and get it fixed. Not wanting to violate any regulations, chef-director Adam Bennett sought advice from the pub's private environmental health consultant. He was told that as long as the machine was cleaned and sterilised between use on raw and cooked products, it would be fine. But according to FSA guidance, the only way to fully clean a vac-pack is to take it apart and sanitise inside the pump, which can only be done by an engineer.
"We got bad advice, which unfortunately we followed," says Bennett. "If we'd been told to use cling film for cooked food instead, that's what we would have done, and it would have been a very simple solution. After we got the low score we stopped trying to get it fixed and ordered a new machine. It was installed within four days and the issue was sorted.
"There's no way a six-point system could portray any of that. To give us a rating of one, in the layman's mind, puts us in the bracket of faeces on the floor and rats in the corner. And we're so far from that."