Food hygiene must be a top priority

Related tags Food hygiene License Hygiene

Two recent high-profile prosecutions - against the Spirit Group and Greene King - have resulted in fines and costs in each case of over £20,000 for...

Two recent high-profile prosecutions - against the Spirit Group and Greene King - have resulted in fines and costs in each case of over £20,000 for a number of food hygiene offences.

In each example the companies have expressed regret and promised to improve performance. Not unexpectedly, the existing management of one of the pubs has been changed, so giving the impression that it is the house manager who is entirely at fault.

But the truth of the matter, if one looks at the industry over a number of years, is that food hygiene in pubs still has a very low priority, however much lip service is paid in public. Now, that lack of attention is costing some companies dear.

There is still a culture that sees the provision of drinks as the main purpose of the pub trade and the running of catering as a second-tier activity, however much profit is obtained by this route.

In other words, as long as the marketing of drinks and the front-of-house presentation is up to scratch, what goes on behind the kitchen doors does not matter too much.

But the fines for licensing offences and even trade descriptions problems pale into insignificance beside the level of penalties that can be imposed for hygiene offences - not to mention the power of instant closure, which is rare for licensing, but regularly used if an environmental health officer (EHO) finds insanitary conditions. The "imminent risk to public health" can close a kitchen or even the whole premises in minutes.

What can also happen is that the premises licence is put in jeopardy as well. In serious cases, there is nothing to prevent an application for a review of the licence, so that the council can decide whether or not the pub should continue to operate. The provision of food as such is not a licensable activity, but food includes drink, and insanitary conditions can affect the bar as much as the kitchen. There is real danger here.

I was in a local pub recently, which proudly displayed its range of staff awards for cellar management, catering, licensing and food hygiene. Having awards is one thing, but

constant vigilance is quite another. Reliance on a piece of paper does not clean the worktops or check the use-by dates on packs of ham.

There is much talk these days of risk assessment, particularly in terms of licensable activities such as later drinking hours or the provision of entertainment. But the most important risk assessment that can be carried out in any catering establishment, at whatever level, concerns food hygiene, so that staff actually see this as a priority in management terms and will react accordingly.

It is a subject where leadership from the top will genuinely make a difference. It cannot be mere coincidence that one particular pub group has been in court for hygiene offences more than any other over the past five years. An active campaign to raise staff awareness of the dangers and the remedies is surely long overdue.

My view is that food hygiene should be on the weekly agenda for all licensed premises, with perhaps some examples of prosecutions to show employees what can happen when there is negligence or forgetfulness.

There is much talk these days of cutting overheads. But this should not mean cutting corners as far as public safety is concerned. It would be an irony if the licensed trade, having overcome the traumas of new licensing regulations and the smoking ban, found itself in the dock yet again over food hygiene. The effect on an already diminished trade would be devastating.

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