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All food businesses based in the UK are subject to food hygiene laws enforced by local authorities. Companies can be inspected at any point, and authorised environmental health officers (EHOs) have the right to enter and inspect any premises without appointment or approval.
When your business is subject to an EHO visit, the primary concern of the EHO is food safety. The leading purpose of the EHO inspection is to check that your business meets the requirements of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Their inspection will use the FSA’s ‘Food Hygiene Rating Scheme’ to award your business a ‘star’ rating upon completion of the examination. These ratings run from 0-5 stars, with a score of ‘0’ indicating that serious action must be taken immediately to avoid penalties or the closure of your premises.
EHO inspections are a legal requirement for all UK food providers, and you are legally bound to accommodate EHO visits and to grant the officers access to your premises.
In this five-minute guide, we’ll explain what environmental health officers are, what powers they have, how to plan for an EHO inspection, and what will happen during an inspection.
We’ll also discuss food hygiene ratings, what they mean, how you can appeal a negative rating, and what penalties you could face for non-compliance regarding EHO recommendations.
What is an EHO?
Local authorities recruit Environmental Health Officers (EHO) across the UK to visit and inspect businesses. They are responsible for carrying out health and safety, food hygiene, and standard checks. As local authorities enforce food hygiene laws throughout your geographical area, EHOs can visit and inspect your premises at any point in the food production and distribution process.
When can an EHO visit?
An EHO can visit your business at any time and are legally obliged to inspect the premises thoroughly. For this reason, it’s illegal for you to refuse or obstruct an EHO from entering your business.
How frequently inspections occur depends on several factors, including:
- How long your business has been open/trading.
- If the local authority has received a complaint about your business.
- If they are conducting a routine six-monthly visit.
- If you have previously received a low rating.
- If they are inspecting other premises nearby and decide to check-in at random.
We recommend having at least one member of staff who is suitably trained in food safety management on-site at all times in case an EHO inspector visits.
This is because you WILL NOT BE INFORMED in advance of an inspection, so you should be prepared at all times.
What legal powers does an EHO have?
EHOs are granted several legal powers that they can use at any time that they feel the need to enforce the law.
Power to remove unfit food
An EHO has the right to remove food from your premises without any permission. This process is known as ‘seizure’. If there is too much food to remove immediately, they can separate any unfit items and mark them to be removed at a later date. This process is called ‘detaining’.
Power of ‘right of entry’
When an EHO visits you to undertake an inspection, legally, you must allow them to enter your business and inspect wherever they deem necessary. That said, they are only allowed to visit you within regular business hours, during what is classed as a ‘reasonable’ time.
Although they may contact you in advance to arrange a suitable time, most of the time they will arrive unannounced. If you work from home, they should provide 24 hours’ notice before a visitation.
Power to serve legal notices
Towards the end of an EHO visit, or shortly after completing the inspection, you will be given a report prepared by the environmental health service (EHS). This report will either confirm that everything is fine on your premises, or outline recommendations for improvements.
If there are significant improvements that must be completed, you may be given a deadline for the completion of all recommendations. You may have to complete some of these recommendations as a legal requirement, especially if your business fails to meet legal requirements.
There are two types of notice that may be issued:
Hygiene Improvement Notice – This notice will be given to you if something is not up to standard and needs to be improved to meet standards set by the law. These notices will provide you with a set date as to when these improvements must be completed. If you fail to comply within the set time, you could face fines, prosecution, and closure.
Emergency Hygiene Prohibition Notice – If there is an immediate risk of injury or harm to your customers, you will be issued with an emergency hygiene prohibition notice. This means that the EHS intends to shut down your business and will be contacting a magistrate for confirmation that this course of action is appropriate.
In these situations, your business will be closed until any conditions that pose a risk are improved to a standard agreed by the EHS. Only then will you be permitted to re-open.
Power to prosecute
The EHS may start a prosecution process in a court of law. This could result in fines, prison sentences, or lifetime bans from running a food business for business owners.
At any point during their investigations, EHOs can take photos, offer advice, or close your business if they feel that this is an appropriate course of action. This is one of the reasons it’s so essential to comply with all UK food hygiene requirements.
What will an EHO look out for during an inspection?
When an EHO visits your premises, they will be checking that you are complying with food laws and producing food that is safe to consume. To ensure this, they will check:
- How you work.
- Your food safety management plan.
- Your premises.
- The types of food that you prepare on your premises.
- How hygienically all food is handled.
- Personal hygiene practices.
- Temperature controls.
- Food labelling.
- Cleaning schedules.
- How food is prepared, cooked, re-heated, cooled, and stored.
- How hygienically all food is handled.
- The condition and structure of your building.
- How clean your building is, the lighting, ventilation, and pest control measures that you have in place.
- How you record food safety and what criteria you have in place to keep food safe.
Whether an EHO is sampling, providing an advisory visit, following up a complaint, or undertaking a full inspection, your business should be prepared at all times.
What do EHO ratings mean?
As we mentioned earlier, after the EHO has concluded their inspection, they provide a rating for the business. This rating system ranges from 0-stars to 5-stars. Five stars are excellent; this score means that the EHO will not need to inspect the premises again for another three years.
A rating of zero means that the EHO will come back and inspect the premises again with 30 days. Their second visit will have the purpose of evaluating the improvements undertaken in line with the recommendations from their initial inspection.
It’s a legal requirement for all businesses to display their rating so that it is visible for customers inside their premises. As these ratings are provided in sticker format, many companies place them in their window or behind their counter.
What to expect from your EHO
When an EHO visits, they should:
- Show appropriate identification.
- Provide feedback from any inspection, including information about issues that they have identified, and guidance on how further problems can be avoided.
- Clearly distinguish between their recommendation for good practice and what you must do to comply with UK FSA laws.
- Offer reasons, in writing, for any actions you are asked to take as a result of their findings.
- Identify any apparent breaches of law, providing a statement of what the law is that you have broken.
- Give you a reasonable amount of time to meet their mandatory requirements (unless there is an immediate risk to public health).
- Clearly outline procedures to appeal against local authority action.
How to prepare for an EHO inspection
There are several ways that you can prepare for an EHO inspection:
Clean your premises thoroughly
One of the most important things that a health inspector will be scrutinising is the level of cleanliness both inside and outside your business. As they can arrive unannounced, at any time, you must always be on top of your cleaning schedule.
Outside doors, walls, and windows should be cleaned regularly, as should inside cupboards, fridges, ovens, corners, and the bottoms of tables. Note that clutter tends to make places look dirtier than they actually are, so make sure everything is stored neatly and in its own space.
Make sure that everything is in good repair
EHO professionals look beyond aesthetic cleanliness – broken power sockets, sharp edges, or faulty appliances can all pose as a danger to your customers. For this reason, you should make sure that all the equipment and furniture in your premises is in full working order, and stored out of the way of the public and employees when not in use.
Check access to handwashing facilities, hot water, ventilation, and drainage
Even if you have excellent hygiene standards and great working conditions, you can still be penalised over insufficient facilities. Access to hot water is crucial for maintaining good hygiene practices, so make sure all hot taps are accessible and functional. Ventilation, drainage, and lighting may also be inspected, so try to check that all lightbulbs are working, at least once a week.
Make sure that your Food Safety Management documentation is in order
During an EHO inspection, you will be asked to provide a copy of your HACCP compliance documentation, so make sure you have a copy that is complete, accessible, and well-maintained on your premises.
These documents are essential proof for the EHO that your business is observing all safety protocols and that all critical points are monitored. It’s worth checking through your documentation and filling out any gaps ASAP.
Your EHO may ask to observe safety checks being carried out or to access evidence of staff training procedures. For this reason, you must make sure that you fully comply with all HACCP guidance and food safety training protocols. If you are unsure as to what needs to be followed, click here to check the FSA guidelines on HACCP.
Check food storage and preparation areas (this includes vehicles)
When an EHO visits, they will pay special attention to any areas used to prepare or store food. These areas are classed as ‘critical hygiene’ areas.
When cleaning, these areas must be dealt with thoroughly. Textured surfaces can create tiny pockets where bacteria thrive, so make sure that these areas are disinfected regularly.
Note that officers will pay interest in how food is transported back and forth from your business. Therefore, any vehicles used to transport food must be clean and accessible for inspection purposes.
Implement a ‘healthy’ waste disposal strategy
Bins are breeding grounds for bacteria, so waste disposal must be managed effectively and considered carefully. Waste storage must be kept at a safe distance away from food preparation areas, and all bins must be thoroughly cleared and cleaned at least once a day.
No bins should be left with food inside overnight, and pest control measures must be implemented in food waste storage areas. EHO officers are always vigilant towards any signs of infestation.
What happens after an EHO inspection?
After the inspection has taken place and all relevant data has been analysed, the Environmental Health Authority (EHA) publishes a report. The report will list all the good and bad things identified during the inspection.
There will be ample praise for the good things that your business is doing to ensure good health and hygiene standards. For any bad stuff, faults will be explained, and improvement advice will be outlined. There will also be a timeframe provided as to when any improvements should be completed. These timeframes will reflect the number of faults identified and how easy they will be to rectify.
We hope that you have found this guide to EHO visitation useful. We can’t stress enough how important it is to train your staff and adhere to UK FSA guidelines. By investing in appropriate training for your team and adhering to best practices in health and hygiene, you can save your reputation, protect the public, and make sure that your business stays on the right side of the law.