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Published: 26 October 2018

Should restaurants in the UK have to display food hygiene ratings?

The Food Standards Agency is investigating whether restaurants should have to display their food hygiene ratings – something that is already required in Wales. Would this improve hygiene standards in the sector?

There is a general belief in most developed countries that the food service sector is responsible for the majority of foodborne illness, albeit that some suggest this is an artefact of increased reporting compared to reporting of illness thought to arise in the home. Whatever the proportion, any case of food poisoning arising from eating out is one too many and is usually the result of poor management of food safety. Inspections of premises are a feature of regulation, and result in a food hygiene score 1 – 5. A rating of 1 or less will mean that the outlet has major failings in the fabric of the establishment, the hygiene practices in place and also the management of food safety.

In Wales, food hygiene ratings have to be displayed however bad they are. This allows the consumer to make an informed choice about whether or not to eat in an establishment. Whilst most of us would probably say we wouldn’t eat in a restaurant with a low rating in England, how many of us do seek out hygiene ratings on government websites to inform our decision? If a restaurant looks ‘OK’ when we arrive, and we’ve not heard anything bad about it, we probably won’t question the safety of the food but we don’t know what lurks behind the kitchen doors. Research has shown that a key factor in food hygiene conditions is the attitude of the management if they don’t care, nor will anyone else in the business. Surely, the prospect of having to display a poor rating would make managers take notice? Surely, consumers seeing a low rating would think twice about that outlet? An FSA project showed that only 16 per cent of respondents said they would consider purchasing food from a business with a rating lower than 3, and that more than 80 per cent thought displaying scores should be mandatory.

Some argue that it is harder for small companies to meet the regulations, but then all companies do have a responsibility for the safety of their customers. Similarly, the high turnover of staff in the sector has been put forward as an issue in terms of training. Financial imperatives should not, however, trump customer safety, however tight the budgets. If scores were displayed, the cost of loss of custom would have to be weighed against the cost savings from inadequate practices, and likely practice would have to improve if the business is to survive.

Professor Anita Eves has researched food safety management in businesses and also hygiene behaviours of consumers. She recently completed a systematic review for the Food Standards Agency investigating whether it was possible to determine the relative proportions of food-borne illness derived from the home and food service outlets.