Fatal allergic reactions, mouldy food that looks like it has grown fur… it’s the stuff of nightmares.
The past few months have seen a slew of food safety stories make the headlines — a potent reminder of the pitfalls of slacking when it comes to the less glamorous side of running a kitchen.
Forces inside and outside the industry are pushing for greater transparency and many are eager for legislation to guarantee that transparency.
Authorities claim a five-star food-hygiene rating should be within any conscientious operator’s grasp, yet many food businesses still fall below what the majority of customers consider an acceptable standard.
Call for change
In early May, the Local Government Authority called for the extension of legislation across England to force any food-serving business to display its food hygiene rating in clear view for potential customers.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said at the time it would favour the move, arguing that as well as being better for consumers, it would attract well-deserved recognition for businesses that achieved good standards.
“There are good reasons why displaying a rating can make a difference,” explains Katie Pett, hospitality lead for UK & Ireland at Diversey Care, which recently commissioned research into the link between cleaning and hygiene, and customer perceptions and behaviour.
“One excellent way to promote cleaning and hygiene positively is to make it highly visible to customers,” she suggests. “Although this may seem counter-intuitive, customers are likely to value seeing critical areas being cleaned during their visit.”
Taking it seriously
This demonstrates that the pub takes food hygiene and cleaning seriously enough to keep on top of it, rather than simply doing a quick clean last thing at night, she says.
Diversey Care’s research made clear that more than a third of customers would leave immediately after entering a dirty restaurant, with a further 23% saying they would order but leave before completing their meal.
Approximately two thirds said they would never return to a dirty eatery, citing cleanliness of tables, cutlery and floors as the most important factors they used to gauge a restaurant’s hygiene standards.
“There is no reason to believe that pubgoers would behave differently if the establishments they frequent have low food hygiene ratings or are indeed dirty when they visit,” she says.
“Assuming this to be true, pubs must make every effort to highlight their excellent food safety, cleaning and hygiene processes.”
In what may come to be seen as a landmark ruling, a restaurateur was found guilty of manslaughter in May by gross negligence, after a diner died of a severe allergic reaction to peanuts in his restaurant.
The tragic case made national news and contributed to rising worries among the public and trade bodies that not enough was being done to safeguard customers against food-safety violations.
A few days after the story broke, the British Hospitality Association announced it would make the first update to food safety guidelines in 20 years in association with a range of food safety experts.
Food safety expert Professor Lisa Ackerley said at the time: “This is about more than complying with the law. We believe that constantly striving for improved standards can only be good for the reputation of the industry as a whole.”
So, with pubs and restaurants facing ever greater scrutiny, it is imperative operators safeguard their businesses, says Simon Frost, chair of the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association (CESA).
Possessing reliable, up-to-date, well-maintained kit is paramount to do this, he claims.
Strangely, high-end food businesses have a habit of scoring lower food hygiene rankings than their branded or chain counterparts.
The FSA last year awarded almost 85% of chains the highest score available, while little more than half of Michelin-starred pubs and restaurants made that achievement.
Speaking to The Telegraph, chef Bruce Poole of restaurant Chez Bruce attributed this to the fact that high-end establishments worked with numerous fresh ingredients that came in daily — making it considerably harder to show how each of them was handled correctly, compared with a chain outlet that worked from a centralised menu.
“[Equipment] ranges from the basics — such as colour-coded chopping boards to help avoid cross contamination — to high-tech systems that can create hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP) logs automatically,” he says.
“As part of the HACCP, all fridges, freezers, chillers, cold stores and other storage areas must be monitored as well as the cooking process temperatures.”
“Wireless systems can automatically record the temperatures at all these different points, logging the date direct to PCs or mobile devices where it can be checked at any time and providing an alarm if anything is not correct — systems can also prepare HACCP records automatically.”
He adds that, for multiple operators, many available systems can be connected to the internet to monitor more than one pub at once.
But, Frost says, investing in good equipment should be part of a two-pronged attack alongside investing in solid training for members of staff.
“Training is a key issue. Staff need training in how to use the proper cleaning tools safely and effectively and how to monitor cleaning procedures. Cleaning procedures should be given top priority to ensure that these tasks get done every day.
“By developing cleaning training, and regimes that are specifically designed to consistently address food safety and general hygiene, caterers can significantly decrease the risks of food-contaminated illnesses, protecting their customers and staff.”
Whenever possible, he recommends actively seeking out equipment that makes it easier for staff to comply with hygiene requirements such as self-cleaning combi ovens, warewashers with self-diagnostics that highlight issues and refrigeration cabinets with in-built temperature alarms.
An inspector calls
“Food businesses come in all shapes and sizes and may well have different aspects to improve on, depending on the services and food they provide,” explains Michael Harding, the FSA’s chief Food Hygiene Rating System expert.
The rating is based on three different areas the food safety officer will look at during the inspection, he says.
Firstly, they will examine how hygienically the food is handled, how it is prepared, cooked,
re-heated, cooled and stored.
Next up is the general cleanliness and condition of the facilities and buildings. This includes having the appropriate layout, ventilation, hand washing facilities and pest control to enable good food hygiene.
Lastly, they will look at how the business manages what it does to make sure food is safe. Harding says: “The systems or checks in place to ensure food sold or served is safe to eat, evidence that staff know about food safety, so that the food safety officer has confidence that standards will be maintained in future.”
Food safety officers will be on hand to explain where operators have slipped up or underperformed. And once the improvements they request have been made, operators can request a re-inspection online to re-assess their business.
“The growth in the use of review websites and social media has seen people discussing and sharing the ratings of businesses,” says Harding. “More and more customers use the rating when deciding where to eat.”
Additionally, he adds, some insurance companies have been known to take food hygiene ratings into account when calculating the cost of insurance premiums.