Friday, 1 February 2013

Food hygiene ratings - do you know how safe your food is?

I got involved in some interesting Twitter discussions yesterday after I tweeted this:

It would appear that lots of people don't know about the food hygiene rating system whilst others use it obsessively.

What the hygiene rating is the result of an inspection of all food outlets by environmental health officers at your local council. They confirm a star rating based on 3 factors - how the food is prepared, cooked and stored, the condition of the building such as layout, cleanliness, ventilation and finally, how the business manages all this to ensure that food is safe. (In Scotland, the scheme is slightly different and establishments get a pass or an improvement required rating instead of stars.)

Environmental health officers always did do this, but in the past, you only heard about them if they closed a place down. Now, though, you can find the rating they have given each outlet by visiting the Food Standards Agency ratings website or by downloading their smartphone app.

I've used it for a while, not generally to check my regular haunts but for new ones - when looking on sites like Just Eat, I realised that I had no idea about some of these places and checking their ratings was a real eye-opener. Several places - rated highly by customers - had shockingly low ratings. My own lower limit is 3 stars, which is considered generally satisfactory. Choosing those takeaways with higher ratings has generally worked out OK for us.

Then I discovered the local chippy (which is also a Chinese) was only rated 1 star. I know this because they put the sign on the door - the council hands out stickers or signs which are currently optional to display, although you can ask staff if one is not displayed what their rating is. Since then, I've restricted myself to buying chips there, as I figure there is not a lot wrong they can do with chips, being as they are cooked in hot oil. I think the sticker might have affected their business as it's since disappeared.

I found out about our favourite Indian (we don't go often but we were there last on Christmas Eve) through a story on the local newspaper website about the new ratings for the local area. Premises can be inspected at any time of the year (and may not be inspected every year) but they must do press releases at this time of year. As it turns out, this restaurant was inspected just before Christmas so I guess the new rating didn't get onto the system until recently as I'm sure it was better than that before.

On discussing this on Twitter, I discovered some like me who stick with a limit of 3 stars, whereas another said her husband (who is a chef) will only use 5 star rated establishments as that is the rating of where he works! It can be quite hard to achieve 5 stars. I mean, even Ruth Watson the hotel inspector, lost her 5 star rating and got 1 star instead, apparently over concerns about the cooking method of some dishes. Overall food handling hygiene may not be bad so it's not an exact science.

As many other people didn't seem to know about this scheme at all. At least one found out that one of their favourite places was only 1 star and another recounted to me that she had only learned about a scheme after her favourite got zero stars (Eek!) and was then closed down. Having one star doesn't seem quite so bad after all!

Would you let a scheme like this affect your decision where to eat? Do you pay any attention to these ratings, either online or displayed in a food outlet? What would you do if you found out that your local favourite - be it takeaway or restaurant - had a very poor rating? Would you boycott it or continue using it?

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