Scores on the Doors – food safety for everyone

Food politics
Scores on the Doors food safety and hygiene scheme
Food hygiene isn’t the first thing I think about when choosing a restaurant. I’m more interested in the menu. 

Heston Blumenthal’s recent experiences show how quickly a hygiene scare can derail a business, with The Fat Duck, one of the country’s – the world’s – best restaurants closed for much of last week while an elusive ‘virus’ was unsuccessfully hunted down.
I’ve had cause to stop and think a couple of times. 

Last year, I ate at a very famous and popular curry house in the North somewhere and was entertained by the sight of rats running across the alleyway over the road, like some sort of Biblical plague. I survived that time.

Recently, a local butcher caused an ecoli outbreak through unsafe handling of cooked meat, leaving his business and reputation in shreds.
Anything that causes restaurateurs and owners of food businesses to raise their game should be welcomed, especially if the process is transparent, accessible and consumer focused. The Scores on the Doors scheme tries to do just that, and it succeeds. 

Scores on the Doors is really just a repackaging of the type of food hygiene inspections that have been carried out for decades, but with a greater emphasis on making the results easily available to the public.

Businesses are assessed on a range of criteria around the three central areas of food hygiene and safety, structure and cleaning and management and control. At a high level, that doesn’t seem much, but it covers processes, management, buildings, equipment and attitudes to the customer – a comprehensive assessment of the things that make a food business safe or unsafe. 

An inspection is distilled down into a zero to five-star rating, with a ‘very poor’ to excellent assessment made on each of the central requirements.

There is a sting in the tail. The business is required to display their scores so that the public can see what they’re dealing with. 

There is sharp practice in this area. I know of one butcher who scored an appalling zero stars, with significant issues that I suspect were around the way he sold cooked food (hams, pork pies, etc) alongside raw meat. There was little hand washing going on, just a quick rinse under a cold tap rather than a proper surgeon-style scrubbing. His star notice is taped to the inside of the door, which is always, always kept open, so that the notice faces a wall. Very crafty, but not really in the spirit of the scheme.

Research has been undertaken by the Food Standards Agency into public and business views of Scores on the Doors, which supports my initial feeling about not really looking out for food safety issues when choosing where to eat or buy food. Most people questioned chose an establishment on the type of food, the price and the location before hygiene issues, only becoming really interested in hygiene when planning a large event such as a family party. In the most part, people trusted their own judgment, which is often wrong, supporting the need for a simple and highly visible rating scheme (1).

Not all local councils are part of the scheme yet, but most of the big authorities in Yorkshire are amongst the eighty-three currently subscribed. Results are available on a very accessible website.
I’ve looked up quite a few of the shops and restaurants I regularly buy from or eat in, and there have been some surprises. The restaurant at my workplace scores an excellent five stars, and the kitchens really are in good shape, whilst my favourite down at heel Asian restaurant initially scored a disappointing single star, but has improved to four stars now, which is part of the point of the scheme. Standards have risen under public scrutiny. 

This is a common theme – a bad rating is often followed by a very good one a few months later. Proprietors seem to take a bad score personally and seriously, see the effect on their business and get the problems sorted out. The transparency of the scheme is entirely to thank for this. The consequences of ignoring a bad score are obvious – either your customers will run for the hills, or Environmental Health will close you down, which for a consumer, is a result either way.

I think this is an important and worthwhile scheme. I know that it makes businesses uncomfortable because it puts them under pressure, but that’s pressure they should feel because it has an impact on our health.

The ultra-paranoid can access a mobile version of the Scores on the Doors website. Imagine standing in front of a restaurant, finding out it’s got a poor hygiene score, shaking your head and moving on. 

Every restaurateur’s worst nightmare.

(1) Scores on the doors: consumer and business views