That was the area of the BBC’s investigation in last night’s Inside Out programme, which concluded that the Food Standard Agency’s present food hygiene rating scheme has just one flaw – restaurants and food outlets are not obliged to display their ratings as they are in Wales.
During the programme (video clip below), Jenny Morris from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health - one of the brains behind the existing ratings system- said she believes placing a rating sign at the door of every eatery in the UK would help drive up food hygiene standards.
“The inspector who goes round sees many things that the consumer doesn’t know about,” said Morris. “The consumer really deserves to know when standards are good and when they’re not so good. “As a bi-product, what we want is that the consumers demand excellent standards and drive them up.”
Food hygiene inspector Pip Broad, from Waltham Forest, also believes mandatory display of the ratings would help drive up food hygiene standards across the UK. She said: "If it was mandatory, it would make the food businesses improve. They don’t want to be displaying 0, 1 or 2 - they know they’d have to get 3 and above to suit their customers. And it would make our jobs much easier."
Video: Inside Out
Under the ratings scheme, which the FSA launched in 2010 and currently operates voluntarily in England and Northern Ireland, a restaurant displays a green sticker with a figure on it. The ratings range from zero (urgent improvement necessary) to five (very good), based on food preparation and hygiene standards.
In Wales, the move to make the signs compulsory is already having an effect, with eight businesses in Cardiff initially receiving a zero rating. Last year, a UK-wide survey from consumer rights group Which? found that 95 per cent of consumers believe the voluntary scheme should be mandatory, with 75 per cent also claiming they would not eat somewhere with a rating of two or lower.
A spokesperson for the FSA told BigHospitality: "We will be monitoring carefully the impact of mandatory display in Wales but, in the meantime, our focus in England is on working closely with businesses to increase the number voluntarily displaying ratings at their premises and to encourage them to use ratings in advertising and promotion.
"We are promoting the scheme to consumers and highlighting to them that if they don’t see a rating they should ask the business or look it up on our website. We are also focusing on getting all local authorities up and running with the scheme – a small number are still preparing to launch it."
However, there are arguments against making rating displays compulsory throughout the country. The British Hospitality Association (BHA) believes the system being applied is ‘inconsistent’ and that too few members of the public understand the six-point ratings.
The organisation’s deputy chief executive Martin Couchman said: “There are still problems with consistency under the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme. For example, only 4 per cent of hospitality and retail food businesses in Belfast are rated as ‘requiring improvement’, compared with 17 per cent of those in Cardiff - yet it is the same scheme. If the flaws haven’t been ironed out, then it is wrong to make any display compulsory.
“The other concern is that customers don’t yet understand the system and without proper understanding, mistakes and misconception can take hold. For example, a hospitality business with low initial scores could find it difficult to win back customers even once it had made significant improvements in its scores.
“The BHA would prefer the FSA in Wales, Northern Ireland and England to operate the Scottish scheme (which requires businesses to be simply given a ‘pass’ or ‘improvement required’). We believe this system is more straightforward and easier to understand.”
@BigHospitality no, too many assume its a food quality standard— Mat Follas (@matkiwi) January 8, 2014
Restaurants and food businesses in the small central England county of Rutland echo the BHA’s view and the local council is dually standing firm against the FSA’s proposals to make the display of food hygiene ratings compulsory.
A Rutland County Council spokesperson said. “After careful consideration and consultation with local businesses, the council decided against signing up to the new ratings system introduced by the Food Standards Agency.
“The council is fully supportive of the FSA and has not taken this decision lightly. However, after weighing up the resource required to comply fully with the scheme it was decided it was not realistic for Rutland, being such a small local authority, to participate.
“We have consulted local firms and the overwhelming feedback was not to support the scheme. The council takes food hygiene very seriously and will continue to work closely with the FSA on other initiatives.”
Readers' Poll: Your opinion
Without approval from all local authorities – which will have to enact the law – the FSA says it won’t press ahead with plans to make the display of hygiene ratings compulsory across the UK. In the meantime, English diners can check on the FSA website to see a full list of ratings in their area.
So, what do you think? Would a mandatory rating display help to drive up food hygiene standards? Or do you agree with the BHA’s opinion that the current system being applied is too inconsistent and open to misconception? Cast your VOTE below and leave a comment at the end of the story to let us know your thoughts.
BigHospitality's owner William Reed Business Media has it's own e-learning programme which offers a range of food hygiene courses, developed under recommendations from the FSA. Click here for more information.