A review of the food hygiene ratings system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has resulted in 12 recommendations.

The assessment of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS), commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), was done between October 2018 and January 2019 by John Barnes, a food safety consultant at Enmoore.

Businesses in England are not legally required to display FHRS compliance stickers, while in Wales and Northern Ireland it is mandatory. There are six levels of hygiene ratings from zero, meaning urgent improvement is necessary, to 5, which means very good compliance. Scotland has its own system, the Food Hygiene Information Scheme that has three ratings: Pass, Improvement Required and Exempt Premises.

One recommendation made in a recent National Audit Office report was to introduce mandatory hygiene rating display. Jason Feeney, then-FSA chief executive, said the agency is working toward doing this.

“We’re delighted that the NAO supports our aim to introduce mandatory display of hygiene ratings in food businesses in England,” he said.

Barnes told Food Safety News he supports mandatory hygiene display.

“It gives greater transparency and, where it is mandatory, has significantly improved food safety compliance in businesses. Consumers have more choice and businesses must respond as people are not going to choose a place which could poison them. With social media consumers are to some extent the new regulator and it would be a step in the right direction,” he said.

Focus on re-rating instead of appeal
Barnes said one major finding of the review concerned the appeals process.

“I know that when I worked at the FSA there was a view creeping in from industry that the appeals process was not independent enough. You don’t want an elephant in the room if you plan on bringing in a mandatory scheme,” he said.

“What came back from industry was a focus on re-rating and not appeals because changes to the re-rating process meant efforts were best focused on that rather than a process they have no control over. Industry re-focus speeded up the re-rating process, it used to take six months and is now three, local authorities accept businesses work on a tight timescale.”

The report found industry perceived the appeals process as lacking independence from the rating authority but put focus on improving the rating instead of appealing as it rarely resulted in success for them or a change to the rating. Welsh data showed there were 100 appeals between Nov. 19, 2016, and Dec. 27, 2017, representing less than 2 percent of 5,424 businesses rated less than 5.

Welsh safeguard data shows 15 of 100 appeals between November 2016 and November 2017 resulted in a higher rating, with one leading to a lower rating. Data for Northern Ireland will be published this year and none is collected for England. This lack of transparency on the number and outcomes of appeals has the potential to perpetuate concerns and mistrust, according to the report.

Responding to this finding, the FSA officials said the agency would look into the lack of central data on appeals by March 2020.

“We will identify and explore mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing relevant local authority documentation relating to appeals to improve central oversight and where appropriate provide challenge and present these to the Food Hygiene Ratings Steering Group for consideration.”

Data gaps
Barnes found the lack of robust data in England presents a significant risk of reputational damage to FSA and the FHRS brand. There is insufficient data on the number and outcomes of requested re-rating inspections and appeals determined by local authorities in England, according to the report.

Requests for a re-rating were the most used FHRS safeguard. Between Nov. 28, 2016 and Nov. 27, 2017 local authorities in Wales received 815 requests for re-rating inspections, representing 15 percent of 5,424 establishments rated 0 to 4.

Fees charged by local authorities are £160 in Wales and £150 in Northern Ireland. A number of authorities in England do not charge for re-visits and have no plans to do so. A FSA questionnaire in 2017 to English authorities showed charges varied from £100 to £330.

The industry view was access to this safeguard in England was “inconsistent and unfair”, according to the report.

FSA said it would produce an annual FHRS Report including information on use of safeguards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and information on charges applied for requested re-rating inspection with the first one in July 2020.

Multi-site issue
Where businesses receive an improved rating but not a 5, it cannot be displayed on the FSA website until after the 21-day appeal period has lapsed. The report found this had created occasional local problems and FSA said it would look enabling quicker publication of ratings.

Barnes found that some local authorities in England are not notifying the head office for multi-site businesses of the FHRS rating for individual outlets as they are required to do.

“Food safety representatives for national companies operating multi-site businesses raised substantive concerns about occasional delays in their head office being made aware of an individual outlet’s FHRS rating. They felt that these delays coupled with letters which lacked the necessary clarity and supporting detail, undermined their decision making and access to the appeal safeguard as there is a 21-day time limit for the company to lodge an appeal and this period commenced on the notification of the FHRS rating to the outlet,” according to the report.

Responding to this finding, the FSA said it would remind local authorities of their responsibilities.

“We will write to all local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to highlight the importance of communicating ratings for individual outlets to head offices in the case of multi-site businesses and remind them of their obligation to do so. We will follow up with individual local authorities if it is brought to our attention that they are failing to meet their obligation to communicate ratings for individual outlets to head offices in the case of multi-site businesses.”

A U.K. wide FHRS Steering Group, which includes industry and external stakeholders as well as local authorities, had not met since 2016. FSA will reconvene this group with membership from industry, local authority and consumer representatives and a remit of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The first meeting will be in early September.

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