Paperwork to mouldy food - are food hygiene ratings fair on restaurants?
A food hygiene rating can make or break a business, especially when negative. But when ratings can change dramatically in just weeks, how robust is the system? And are they fair on eateries? Lauren Cope reports.
For plenty of diners, a restaurant’s food hygiene rating can be as important as its menu.
But the system, which sees restaurants graded on a scale of one to five by inspectors, divides opinion - some say that food hygiene is vital, and that ratings, both good and bad, are an accurate snapshot of a business.
Others, though, agree that hygiene is key - but say a rating can tumble over a minor concern, damaging reputation and trade even after a high rating is restored.
In August, Middletons Steakhouse and Grill on Timberhill, in Norwich, lost its five star rating of six years when it was given just one after an inspection.
Managing director Stephen Hutton said it was down to a broken fridge on the day - and after they requested a revisit they restored their five star rating at the start of September.
Mr Hutton said he didn’t blame inspectors for the rating, and said he had sympathy with their position.
“They have to take a snapshot on that day. You can’t mess around with food hygiene,” he said. “Our restaurants serve 2,000 people a week, and it has to be the best it can be.”
MORE: Are food hygiene ratings fair on restaurants?
But he said there should be more transparency around the lower ratings, to avoid a business being misrepresented.
“If you go to a one star, the assumption is that you have got a rat infestation, mouse droppings or food going off,” he said. “I don’t think people know most of the time that it’s inspectors checking you are following processes.”
He said the Norwich Middletons - which has sister restaurants around the region, including King’s Lynn - had seen an impact on business, but that they were working hard to restore their reputation.
Norwich has long been pioneering when it comes to food hygiene - in 2005, the city council launched the first food hygiene rating scheme of its kind, which was adopted by local authorities and, by 2010, had been endorsed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Today, it remains one of a minority of local authorities which publish reports online.
As of yesterday, of the 1,762 eateries in Norfolk with a rating, 88pc have either a four or five rating.
In August, The Last Wine Bar, in Norwich, was given a one star rating despite inspectors praising its food hygiene standards.
While they said improvements were needed in the cleaning, sanitation and maintenance of the restaurant, a key concern was the owners being unable to provide necessary paperwork.
James Sawrey-Cookson, partner in the Last Wine Bar, which is awaiting a reinspection, told customers at the time they were disappointed, and that they didn’t feel the rating was a “fair reflection” of standards.
“We have to hold our hands up to not being able to provide the inspector with all of the appropriate paperwork on the day of the inspection, due to our offices being packed up and in the process of moving,” he said.
MORE: Middletons Steakhouse and Grill restores five star hygiene rating in swift re-inspection
It isn’t uncommon to see a restaurant’s rating fall from a four or five to a zero, only to rise back to the higher ratings again a few weeks later.
And the impact of a poor hygiene rating can be severe - in September, Number 1 Bar and Kitchen in Gorleston closed its restaurant to focus on simpler bar food. Manager Karen Lear said a zero star rating given in May was “probably a contributing factor” to the decision.
It has seen some chefs call for a grace period - a few days to correct any mistakes with paperwork or processes before being reinspected - though Mr Hutton said it could see poor standards slip through.
In Great Yarmouth, the head chef of kebab shop UK Express Kebabs, on Marine Parade, said a zero star “ruined” their reputation, despite bouncing back to a four in just a few weeks.
Jalan Almadfai, believes the shop was not properly checked, and said since the inspection their takings had dropped from as much as £4,000 a day down to £200.
The FSA said any business should be able to achieve a five rating, which they said “is [the business’] responsibility”.
They said poor businesses that have made improvements can apply to be reassesed, and added: “Food businesses with lower ratings often cite ‘it was only due to paperwork’. In practice this element is about much more than paperwork, and it will rarely (if ever) be the sole reason for a low rating.”
What can businesses do if they are unhappy with a report?
Julie Gowland, senior associate at Birketts LLP, has given some pointers for businesses.
Within 14 days of the inspection you will receive an assessment outlining why the rating was given. If you feel it was unfair, you can appeal the rating. Initially, you should contact the officer that carried out the inspection, but if that does not satisfy concerns you can appeal within 21 days of receiving the rating, with a form which is on the FSA website. If you wait longer than 21 days, the rating will be put online.
A lead officer of food will conduct the appeal and you will be notified of the result within 21 days. If you remain unhappy, you have the right to go to a judicial review, but the FSA will still publish your rating online.
Ms Gowland also said that businesses can write a right of reply to the food safety officer, to explain to its customers its improvement steps, which will be published online with the rating.
If improvements are made, you can request a re-visit - some local authorities charge for this.
The re-visit will see the same procedures taken as the original - including that you can appeal.
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