Food hygiene ratings; excuses for low scores are a cop out and I can prove it, with my 5/5 rating

Guest blog from my partner, Misia (@safetypin_)

It was reported today that Adonis Kebab House in Cardiff has closed following an E.coli outbreak. Five people were affected – one was hospitalised. As far as I’m concerned, this simply isn’t acceptable.

E.coli is easily preventable in cooked food. If fresh food is stored and cooked properly and preparation areas are kept clean, it is highly unlikely that an E.coli contamination will break out. But Adonis is not unique in its failure to sell uncontaminated food. A quick Google search will reveal a staggering number of UK restaurants that have been forced to close after being linked to E.coli outbreaks.

It’s important to remember that E.coli is a serious disease. The infection primarily causes severe and painful gastrointestinal problems, but other complications can arise as a result of the infection. It can necessitate hospitalisation even for fit and healthy adult, but E.coli can be fatal for those who are already physically vulnerable. A pregnant woman who contracts E.coli has an increased risk of miscarriage or premature delivery. Children and the elderly are especially susceptible to developing hemolytic uremic syndrome; the symptoms of which include a low red blood cell count, a low platelet count and kidney damage, which can ultimately lead to death.

Many of us have heard the story of Mason Jones, a boy who died after contracting an E.coli infection in 2005, aged five. The outbreak of E.coli that killed Mason Jones was traced back to a local butcher who failed to meet basic food hygiene standards. This story is a sobering reminder that all the recent discussions about the Food Standards Agency food hygiene ratings aren’t just a big fuss over nothing. The FSA hasn’t designed this scheme for fun. It’s there to protect people; to prevent new cases like that of Mason Jones – which is why I’m always furious when I read a quote from a restaurant owner making excuses for their low food hygiene rating.

The most common excuse is that the restaurant failed “on a technicality”. I can say with complete confidence that there is no “technicality” that could leave an otherwise clean and safe food premise with a rating lower than 3. The reason I’m so certain that this is true is that I’ve recently been through an inspection from the Cardiff Council Food Safety Team myself. I’m in the process of setting up a food business in a residential kitchen, but the guidelines are exactly the same as for those working in a professional kitchen (and, for anyone who’s interested, we received a rating of 5. It’s really not hard to achieve).

The guidelines are simple. A booklet filled with information on how staff should keep themselves clean, how food should be stored, how to keep the kitchen clean, how to ensure that food is cooked properly and how to prevent pests is provided, and it is required that every staff member signs to show that they have read the booklet. The booklet is detailed but simple – it’s designed to be understandable even to those with a limited understanding of English. Most people would already do all of the things listed in the booklet instinctively – storing raw meat away from fresh vegetables, washing your hands before and after handling food etc. – but the fact that you’re required to have read it before opening a business ensures that nobody has any excuse to neglect to do any of these things.

The only part that could be considered a technicality is the record-keeping. The council inspector confessed during our meeting that one of the main reasons restaurants don’t receive scores of 4 (good) or 5 (very good) is that they don’t keep a record of what happens day-to-day in their kitchens (though I’d like to stress that he did also tell us that you can’t get a rating of 2 or lower based only on that). While this in itself isn’t going to affect the quality of the food, it’s still a very important part of running a food business. Kitchen workers aren’t expected to write an essay each day – all that’s required is that they sign to say that they’ve cleaned the kitchen and checked for any problems, and that they make a note of any issues that arose that day and how they were resolved. It takes less than two minutes to fill out and it ensures that everyone can see that they are complying with the food safety rules they promised to follow when they started trading.

So when a restaurant receives a low score and blames it on a technicality, this can only mean one of two things: Either they’re lying – and they haven’t actually been keeping their kitchen clean and safe – or they simply can’t be bothered to take a few minutes a day to prove that they are doing everything correctly. I would never choose to eat in a restaurant that does either of these things. For obvious reasons, I would avoid any establishment where I can’t be guaranteed food that has been safely cooked, but I would be just as likely to steer clear of somewhere that doesn’t take their duty to keep track of what’s happening in their kitchen seriously. If they’re that lax with such a simple task, where else might they be slacking?

I believe that we all have a right to know how committed a restaurant is to serving safe food to their customers, and I don’t think any of us should eat in a restaurant that has a score lower than 3 (generally satisfactory). I implore people to continue to name and shame the restaurants that are failing to meet the standards we should be able to expect, whether that’s because they genuinely aren’t doing the things they should be doing or because they simply aren’t willing to put in the time to prove that they’re doing everything right.

I don’t particularly want to have to deal with an E.coli infection myself, but with a young son the importance of knowing that the food I buy isn’t contaminated is more important than ever. All I require from a restaurant owner is that in exchange for the money I’m paying, you can assure me that you have done everything in your power to make sure that it’s safe for me to eat. And, let’s face it, that is not something I should have to ask for.

To find out the food hygiene rating of any UK restaurant, simply search for the restaurant here





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