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FHRS

Sterling Crew reviews the UK’s Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS), which was introduced to improve the availability of information about hygiene standards of food businesses for consumers and to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness by increasing legal compliance.

Origin of FHRS

One of the key drivers for the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) was the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which defined the ways in which people may obtain reasonable access to government-held information. The concept was first put forward in 1997 and passed into legislation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2000 and in Scotland during 2002. It enabled the media and public to make Freedom of Information requests to local authorities for details about their activities. This resulted in a growing number of requests for information on the hygiene standards in local food businesses, which prompted many councils to make this information available in a readily accessible format. It led to a number of different hygiene rating schemes being operated by councils, where information about inspections was made available on their websites.

However there were no uniform grading systems for food premises making direct comparisons difficult. In December 2008, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) board approved a six tier rating system called the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS)[1] for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Table 1). Food Standards Scotland (FSS) adopted the Food Hygiene Information Scheme (FHIS), a two tier approach, with a ‘Pass’ or ‘Improvement’ rating. The aim of the schemes is to encourage businesses to improve hygiene standards and legal compliance and consequently reduce the incidence of food-borne illness. The FHRS was launched in 2010 and is now run in partnership between the FSA and local authorities.

Display of rating stickers became compulsory in Wales in November 2013 and in Northern Ireland in October 2016. Food Businesses in both countries are legally required to display their ratings in a prominent place, such as at the entrance or in the window of the premises. Disappointingly, in England, food businesses are encouraged but not required by law to display their rating. However, all ratings can be found online and currently FHRS ratings for approximately 479,000 food businesses are on the FSA website, representing nearly 92% of those businesses in scope. The date of the inspection can be found on the back of the sticker and online. The rating given to a food business only reflects the standards of food hygiene found at the time of the inspection or visit by the local council.

Unsurprisingly in England, businesses with a higher rating are more likely to display the FHRS sticker than those with a lower rating.

Coverage

The FHRS covers businesses providing food directly to consumers, such as supermarkets, restaurants, pubs, cafés, takeaways, hotels, hospitals and schools. In Wales the scheme also includes business to business trade e.g. manufacturers, which no doubt the FSA will be monitoring to see whether these businesses should be included more generally.

The scheme covers how hygienically the food is handled, how it is prepared, cooked, re-heated, cooled and stored as well as how the food business manages systems for keeping food safe, training and ensuring good hygiene standards are maintained. The physical condition of the premises is also addressed encompassing cleanliness, layout, lighting, ventilation, pest control and other facilities. One of the key criteria assessed relates to Confidence in Management, which covers the business’s food safety management, such as their HACCP controls. The food hygiene rating is not a guide to food quality, customer service or cooking skills.

An FHRS visit does not preclude the inspector using the wide range of enforcement actions and other initiatives available to regulatory authorities alongside issuing a rating. If the standard of hygiene is so poor that there is an imminent risk to health, the inspector must take action and can issue an Emergency Prohibition Notice or close down part or all of the business until improvements have been made. Prosecution could also follow a visit where poor standards were found.

The scheme has a number of safeguards available to food business operators who believe that their score is unfair or wrong. They can appeal to the local authority or request a prompt re-inspection following remedial actions, although in the case of a re-inspection, the original rating is published until any improved rating is issued. There is also a right to reply and businesses can respond online to the rating given by the council, though this is used infrequently.

Consumer awareness

FHRS ratings are followed by consumers, the media and pressure groups that increasingly benchmark food businesses using FHRS data. In April 2019, the FSA published the fifth wave of its biennial ‘Food and You’ consumer survey[2], which collects information about the public’s reported behaviours, attitudes and knowledge relating to food safety and food issues. The survey found that the majority of respondents in England, Wales and NI (87%) reported having seen FHRS stickers.

Displaying a high hygiene rating is a good advertisement for businesses that meet the requirements of food hygiene law. The scheme has begun to resonate with the public with around three in five respondents mentioning that a good hygiene rating score (60%) along with good service (61%) and the price of food (60%) is important in their decisions about where to eat out.

Unsurprisingly in England, businesses with a higher rating are more likely to display the FHRS sticker than those with a lower rating. Over two thirds (67%) of those with a rating of five are displaying the stickers, compared to only 28% of those that have a rating of zero to three. In a 2018 consumer survey, the FSA reported that 52% of respondents in England, 41% in Wales and 62% in Northern Ireland often or sometimes check hygiene ratings before eating out. The overall use of FHRS by consumers has increased since the previous wave from 46% to 51%.

Challenges and opportunities

FHRSEach local council is required to implement a risk based intervention programme with the frequency of inspections of food businesses depending on their risk to public health. The aim is for food businesses that pose a higher risk to be inspected more often than those that pose a lower risk. Inspection frequencies can range from 6 months to 3 years or longer, depending on local authority resource pressures, even though minimum frequencies are prescribed in Codes of Practice. To maintain the integrity of the scheme, there needs to be a consistent approach across the UK. A Which? report[3] found that in more than a third of areas in the UK, none of the highest-risk food businesses (classified by virtue of their size, nature and compliance standards) met minimum food hygiene standards in 2016/17. In one London Borough, none of the 34 high-risk food premises met hygiene expectations. In the past, some food operators have waited months and even years to be re-inspected.

The impact of local authorities’ finances on FHRS delivery cannot be ignored. A recent study by Unison reported that environmental health budgets per head of population have more than halved over the past decade, falling by 52.92% between 2009 and 2018. As a result, enforcement visits by environmental health officers have fallen by nearly a half, a 49.05% drop, and programmed inspections and visits to food businesses, which underpin the authority being able to provide an FHRS rating, have decreased by 40.95% over the same period.

Food businesses must register all their premises at least 28 days before opening. Registration is free and, remarkably, cannot be refused, although enforcement action can be taken by the authority against any business opening with poor food hygiene or safety standards. Local regulators are then meant to rate businesses within 28 days of opening. Performance at hitting this 28 day target varies across the UK. If a food operator makes, prepares or handles food that comes from animals for supply to other businesses i.e. a food manufacturer, they may require approval from the local authority before the activity commences. Approval can be refused by the local authority and it is an offence for such businesses to operate without approval.

A future improvement to the FHRS could be the introduction of a complementary integrated licensing system. In particular, a food licensing system could be adopted by local authorities to permit an activity that would otherwise be forbidden. The payment of a fee could self-fund the scheme. Such a licence may also serve to keep local councils informed about the type of activity and to give them the opportunity to set conditions and limitations even before a food business starts to operate. The FSA will be reviewing fees for inspections as part of its ‘Regulating Our Future’ review and in its strategic plan for 2015- 20.

Online delivery platforms

Online food delivery platforms, such as Just Eat, Uber Eats and Deliveroo, are revolutionising food supply systems and can offer consumers greater convenience and choice. Their challenge is to give their customers confidence in the source restaurant or takeaway kitchens as online ordering generally offers greater anonymity to the originating kitchens.

The speed at which new food outlets, the so called online ‘dark kitchens’, start up makes it challenging for local regulators to ensure their arrangements are safe and compliant. There are concerns that some providers are not being transparent enough with their customers about the food hygiene rating of individual outlets or ensuring customers have the required food labelling or allergen information.

Recent media coverage has exposed online delivery platforms using food businesses with low FHRS scores. One TV programme illustrated the lack of controls by using a skip as a supply point.  A BBC investigation found that half of outlets rated zero by the FSA in Manchester, Bristol and London appeared on delivery platform ordering apps. A number of the online delivery platforms are now removing all restaurants and takeaways with a hygiene rating of zero and some are insisting on a minimum FHRS rating of 3 - sites whose ‘hygiene standards are Generally Satisfactory’. Customers can check the premises rating on the FSA website before purchase, but it is questionable how many will take the extra time to do this. Just Eat is piloting arrangements to prominently display the FHRS rating for businesses on its platform in Northern Ireland initially, reflecting future intentions in Northern Ireland to legally require a business’s FHRS rating to be displayed on relevant online or advertising material. Hopefully, this will be widely adopted.

The latest FSA FHRS Consumer Attitudes Tracker[i] reports that a high percentage of respondents in England (85%), Wales (87%) and Northern Ireland (97%) thought businesses providing an online food ordering service should display their food hygiene rating where it can be clearly seen.

Possible conflict of interest

Local authorities cannot charge for an FHRS visit but they can charge for re-rating inspections. Some authorities in England and all in Wales and Northern Ireland charge a fee to recover the costs of carrying out a re-rating inspection (£150\£160). Some authorities sell ‘advice’ visits in advance of their FHRS inspections, creating a new revenue stream for cash strapped councils. The cost of advice visits and re-visits is variable across English councils; some are charging £350 a visit, which could be argued is above simple overhead recovery, while many still do not charge. As such the position in England is inconsistent and unfair to businesses.

A paid advisory pre-FHRS visit from the local authority allows businesses to resolve potential problems privately, averting embarrassment and potential prosecution. It can be argued that this practice is blurring the line between the roles of regulator and paid consultant thereby generating a potential conflict of interest and calling into question the objectivity of any subsequent FHRS score. The creation of internal ‘Chinese walls’ may go some way to ameliorating this accusation, however professional private sector providers, many employing qualified Environmental Health Practitioners, can provide such a service to help protect the integrity and independence of the council’s regulatory role.

Approved private sector organisations could also carry out the FHRS re-visits or even rating inspections freeing regulatory authorities to focus on their important enforcement role. There are however obvious local authority operational and political concerns about the privatisation of this service.

Conclusions

This FHRS is an ever evolving programme of work dedicated to raising food safety, hygiene standards and legal compliance via improved transparency. It has become an essential element of the regulatory gestalt. The FHRS has undoubtedly been a great success. It is popular with members of the public, food enforcement agencies and responsible food business operators. The scheme supports consumers in making informed choices about where to eat  or shop for food. It provides local authority food inspectors with a simple and proven tool to drive up food hygiene standards. For responsible food business operators it is a way of demonstrating their commitment to high standards of hygiene and enables them to differentiate themselves from the competition. The loss of revenue following a poor hygiene rating, as customers choose to eat elsewhere, is a motivating factor for food businesses to improve their hygiene practices. This transparency has seemingly led to significant improvements to business hygiene compliance levels year on year since the introduction of the FHRS. Over 90% of food businesses in scope are now rated FHRS 3 (Generally Satisfactory) or above, with approximately 70% rated FHRS 5 (Very Good).

Food safety and hygiene must be a top priority for a food business operator regardless of size. Although compliance with food hygiene law does not eliminate the risk of food-borne illness, research indicates that premises with higher food hygiene rating scores are less likely to encounter outbreaks and have better results in microbiological analytical surveys.

Calls for the mandatory display of food hygiene ratings in England and Scotland continue. The lack of compulsory display persists in undermining the scheme’s credibility and effectiveness. The FSA has signalled its intention to push for a statutory scheme in England, but there is still no sign of the necessary legislation being tabled largely due to parliamentary focus on ‘Brexit’.

The FHRS could be enhanced by increasing the consistency and probably more importantly the frequency of inspections (and re-rating inspections) across the UK. Strong legislation and weak enforcement compliance is not protecting consumers. The potential conflict of interest and inconsistency of local authority paid pre-FHRS advice inspections also needs to be addressed.

The scheme could be given further breadth to address specific areas of growing public concern, such as adequate allergen management. It might also benefit from innovative alternative methods of delivery, such as approved private sector involvement, to take some of the burden off overstretched and underfunded local councils. Licensing of food operations could be part of a solution for enforcement agencies.

The impact of social media on food hygiene standards should not be underestimated.  Consumers are said to be the new regulators, with organisations such as TripAdvisor giving the public an online facility for an influential, shared, instant and continuous customer review.

The FSA’s ‘Regulating Our Future’ programme, focused initially on processes for food business registration and subsequent checks by enforcement agencies and is now reviewing the processes for enforcing food standards. This may provide an opportunity to review and enhance the FHRS.

Sterling Crew FIFST, FCIEH, FRSPH, CEnvH, CSi

Co-Founder of Kitchen Conversations. Managing Director SQS Ltd. Strategic Advisor Shield Safety Group and Dynamic Risk Indicator, Chair of the IFST Food Safety Group, Independent Scientific Advisor and Board member of Campden BRI, Audit Governance Board member Eurofins auditing.

Email sterlingmcrew@aol.com



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