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When we purchase food, for example from a cafe, supermarket or takeaway, we expect it to be safe for us to eat. We expect the business to have prepared and handled our food hygienically and safely to prevent us from harm, such as food poisoning.
Food poisoning can be very unpleasant for sufferers and potentially life-threatening for some. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), approximately 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur every year in the UK, which is up from the 2009 estimate of around one million.
Most people would wish to avoid purchasing and eating food from a business where there is a risk of food poisoning and other food safety-related harm. But, how do we, as consumers, avoid those with poor food safety and hygiene standards? One way is to look for a business’s food hygiene rating or score.
Most people are familiar with the hygiene rating stickers in windows and on company websites. How many have seen a score of 3 or below and decided to eat somewhere else with a 4 or 5? According to the latest NFU Mutual Food Hygiene Report, 69% of people check the food hygiene ratings of the establishments they use, and it does influence their choices.
Their report found that customers would turn away from a 3-star rated business, but not one that was 5-star rated. Therefore, anyone selling or supplying food should strive for the highest possible rating, which is achievable for all types of businesses.
This article will look at what a food hygiene rating is and more about the scheme. It will also cover how to find a business’s rating and the impact of low ratings.
What is a food hygiene rating?
A food hygiene rating is a score given to an applicable food business after an inspection by a local authority Environmental Health Officer (EHO) (also known as a food safety officer).
The rating is given under the food hygiene rating scheme (FHRS). The ratings help consumers to make an informed choice where to purchase and eat food. It gives them information about a business’s hygiene standards within the premises at the time of inspection. If one has a high rating, this gives consumers the confidence that they are complying with relevant food safety and hygiene laws.
As well as providing consumers with information, the FHRS also aims to:
- Reduce the number of food poisoning cases and associated costs to the economy.
- Recognise food businesses with the highest hygiene standards and encourage others to improve.
Understanding the rating scheme and what it covers
Where does the rating scheme apply?
Businesses that directly supply and sell food to consumers, and those where food is eaten on the premises, will be inspected and given a rating under the scheme.
Some examples of the types of businesses where the FHRS will apply include:
- Cafes, pubs and restaurants.
- Sandwich shops.
- Hotels and canteens.
- Mobile traders.
- Food retailers, e.g. supermarkets and convenience stores.
- Schools, hospitals and care homes.
- Other places where people eat food prepared/cooked/served outside of the home.
Businesses that do not supply or sell food directly to consumers, such as manufacturers, distributors and packers, will still be inspected but not given a rating under the FHRS.
Some are also exempt from the scheme as they are deemed to be very low risk, for example:
- Premises where unrefrigerated pre-wrapped goods are sold./li>
- Those caring for people in their own homes.
Is the rating scheme UK-wide?
There are two different types of hygiene rating scheme in the UK:
- In England, Wales and Northern Ireland:
– The food hygiene rating scheme (FHRS) applies.
– The scheme is run by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in partnership with local authorities.
– There are different legal requirements between the three countries.
– A number hygiene rating is given (between 0-5).
- In Scotland:
– A different scheme applies, which is the Food Hygiene Information Scheme (FHIS).
– The scheme is run by Food Standards Scotland (FSS) in partnership with local authorities.
– A word hygiene rating is given (either pass or improvement requirement).
– There is also the Eat Safe Award, where businesses can demonstrate they go above and beyond legal compliance of the FHIS.
What will an inspector look for?
FHRS inspections are unannounced, which means an EHO can visit the premises at any time. This is why businesses need to comply with food safety laws and ensure that hygiene standards are high at all times. An EHO may make an appointment where a person is operating their business from home.
When carrying out food hygiene inspections, EHOs will follow the Food Law Code of Practice. They will be looking to see if the business is complying with the requirements of relevant food safety and hygiene laws at the time of inspection.
During the inspection, the EHO will focus on three main elements, which are:
- Hygienic handling of food – Including preparation, cooking, cooling, reheating and storage.
- Cleanliness and condition of facilities and building – Including suitable layout, lighting, ventilation, handwashing, pest control and other facilities.
- Food safety and hygiene management – How the business manages food safety and maintains good hygiene standards by looking at HACCP systems, processes, checks, training and records.
Factors such as food quality and customer service are not part of the inspection.
Checking these three main elements verifies compliance with food safety laws and good hygiene practices. For a business to obtain a 5-star hygiene rating, it must perform well in all three areas.
If food hygiene standards are identified as poor during an inspection, and there is an imminent public health risk, the EHO can order temporary closure. The business will only be allowed to continue when it has made improvements and has been signed off as safe.
What do the scores mean?
The rating given to a food business is a reflection of the food hygiene standards found at the time of the inspection.
There are six different ratings, which are:
- 5 – hygiene standards are very good.
- 4 – hygiene standards are good.
- 3 – hygiene standards are generally satisfactory.
- 2 – some improvement is necessary.
- 1 – major improvement is necessary.
- 0 – urgent improvement is required.
A 5-star hygiene rating is at the top of the scale, and it is the highest a business can achieve. Obtaining this rating demonstrates compliance with food hygiene and safety laws fully and at a high level.
How the rating is calculated is different to what would be expected in that to get the top rating, businesses must not score more than 5 in each of the three main elements. The scores from the three areas inspected are added together to give a total score, which corresponds to a hygiene rating. The more points scored in the inspection, the lower the hygiene rating. For example, a score of >50 would mean a rating of 0.
In Scotland, there is a different rating system under the Food Hygiene Information Scheme. There are no number scores; only a pass or improvement is required.
What happens after the inspection?
Following an inspection, the EHO calculates the rating and should inform the business operator of what it is within 14 days (weekends and bank holidays included). If they have not achieved the top rating, the EHO will detail what is needed to improve their score on the inspection report.
If the business operator is not happy with their rating, they can appeal within 21 days of notification. If their appeal is unsuccessful, they can request a re-visit (at a cost) when they have made the required hygiene improvements. After the inspection, they will receive a new rating.
How frequently are businesses inspected?
The frequency of inspections is based on the potential risk to public health. Businesses that pose a higher risk to consumers will be inspected more frequently, for example every six months. The frequency of inspection for lower risk businesses can be up to every two years.
This can be extended further for very low-risk premises, for example those with an impeccable record and a 5-star hygiene rating. Inspections can also occur between these frequencies, for example if there is a complaint submitted to the local authority or to confirm that hygiene standards are being maintained.
Every time a business is inspected, it will receive a new rating. Therefore, if hygiene standards are not maintained, it can result in a lower rating than before.
How to find a business’s rating
A food business will be given a hygiene rating unless the scheme is not applicable or the business is exempt. To find out what a business’s food hygiene rating is, you can do the following:
Look for the rating sticker in the window or door of the premises
After an inspection, the EHO scores the business against the three main elements. Their food hygiene rating is calculated, and they are given a window sticker with their score. The sticker is signed and dated on the back by the inspector.
- Wales and Northern Ireland – It is a legal requirement for businesses to display their rating in a prominent position, e.g. the front door, window or entrance. They must put it in a suitable place within 21 days after receiving their confirmed rating.
- England – Businesses are not legally required to display their hygiene rating, but it is recommended. Unfortunately, this means that those with poor ratings are less likely to display their stickers.
Customers can still check the rating via the FSA’s website.
FHRS stickers are green and black in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, pass certificates/stickers are blue and improvement required certificates/stickers are red, but it is not mandatory to display them.
Access the FSA’s website online
You can search for a business’s hygiene rating on the Food Standards Agency website.
There are many search options available, including:
- Business name and type.
- Street, town or postcode.
- Country or local authority.
- Hygiene rating.
The online search will even inform you whether a food business is exempt from, or awaiting, an inspection.
The FSA online hygiene rating search covers England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. People can also search on the Food Standards Scotland website for a business’s hygiene status under the FHIS.
Look on leaflets or flyers
Many food businesses will put their hygiene rating on leaflets or flyers, especially takeaways.
Those who have takeaway businesses are required to inform customers how to find details of their rating on the FSA website via a bilingual statement.
Ask a member of staff in-person or over the phone
If you cannot find a rating displayed at the business’s premises or on their website, you can enquire what their rating is with a staff member. It may be necessary where a business has recently been inspected and is waiting for a sticker or for their rating to be updated on the Food Standards Agency website.
Businesses should provide the information on their rating where requested. Withholding or providing inaccurate information may result in enforcement action.
Where possible, it is recommended that you verify the rating on the FSA’s website before going to the premises to purchase and/or eat food.
Mobile phone apps
Some apps can be downloaded onto mobile phones, which can provide information on a food business’s hygiene rating. These should be used with caution, as the information may not always be up to date.
What to do if you have a problem finding a rating
There may be instances where you can’t find a rating or the displayed rating sticker is different from the rating online. This may be due to a delay in the FSA updating the rating on their website, or the business may be waiting for a result after an appeal.
If a business scores a 5, the rating is published as soon as the information has been uploaded by the local authority. Ratings from 0-4 are published on the FSA’s website between 3-5 weeks to allow time for an appeal.
Here are a few things you can do to find a rating:
- Check the rating before visiting the premises where possible, as it’s easier to research and it prevents awkwardness of leaving.
- If you are at the premises and see a sticker displayed, check the date on the back where possible.
- If there is no sticker displayed, look online for the hygiene rating or ask a staff member.
- Verify the rating with your local authority if you are unsure or have concerns regarding a rating.
- If you cannot find the hygiene rating, choose another food business that displays their rating with a higher score of 4 or 5.
Remember, consumers have a choice where to purchase and eat food. Ask yourself whether you would want to support a business that is not upfront about its hygiene standards.
Having a low (poor) hygiene rating can have negative impacts on a food business, for example:
|Risk of illness and injury to customers||A low rating means poor food safety and hygiene standards. This can increase the risk of food poisoning, injury through foreign objects and allergic reactions.|
|Fewer customers||Lower ratings mean fewer customers. Remember, 69% of people check ratings, and many would turn away from a 3-star rated business, but not one that was 5-star rated.|
|Reduction in takings||Fewer customers means less takings for a business.|
|Enforcement||If an EHO finds that food safety and hygiene standards are very poor during an inspection, they can take enforcement action against the business owner.|
This can result in prosecutions, significant financial costs and reputational damage. In extreme cases, it could result in the closure of the business.
|Increased inspections||The frequency of inspections is based on the public health risk. If a business has a low rating, it will be subject to more inspections. This will result in more time and money being spent addressing the issues found.|
Having a low rating, and even a score of 3, can adversely affect a business’s finances. Even if they improve their score, it can take some time to regain the trust of customers. Therefore, it is within the interest of all food businesses to aim for the highest hygiene rating.
The food hygiene rating scheme (FHRS) plays a vital role in reducing food poisoning cases, encouraging businesses to adopt better hygiene standards, and giving consumers a choice where to purchase and eat food.
Consumers play an important role in helping businesses to improve their food safety and hygiene standards. If they choose to purchase and eat food from higher-rated establishments, it is likely to encourage those lower-rated ones to improve their standards and scores.
You would like to think that all food business operators adopt good food safety and hygiene standards, as they care about their customers and do not want to make them ill. Unfortunately, some do not, which is why inspections are vital and why the FHRS is successful.
It incentivises them to comply with food hygiene and safety laws and adopt high standards. By doing so, they will attract more customers, which will make them more profitable.
Any food business can achieve a 5-star hygiene rating, regardless of its size or nature. If they value their business and customers, they must aim high.