A consumer group wants mandatory display of food hygiene ratings across the United Kingdom so people can make informed choices when dining out.

Which? said it was concerned consumers are at risk of being left in the dark or misled about hygiene standards. The call comes as the organization released research about the best and worst areas of the U.K. for takeaway and restaurant food hygiene.

Food businesses, including takeaways and restaurants, should be required to display an up-to-date food hygiene rating on the premises and if they have an online presence for customers ordering food from home. The regulator and councils should also take strong action against sites displaying incorrect ratings that mislead consumers, according to the  Which? organization.

While restaurants and cafes across the country have been forced to shut because of the coronavirus pandemic, many have switched to offering home delivery to reach customers.

Displaying the correct rating
In England and Scotland it is not mandatory for firms to display their food hygiene ratings – making it harder for consumers to find out what standards a restaurant or takeaway has met, while in Wales and Northern Ireland it is legally required. Figures from 2018 show that 52 percent of businesses in England, 84 percent in Northern Ireland and 87 percent in Wales displayed their ratings.

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.

Other groups such as the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and Local Government Association are in favor of a mandatory system in England. The Food Standards Agency also wants it but this involves primary legislation and government approval is needed.

Which? visited 243 food establishments on 14 high streets around London and discovered that only about half displayed their hygiene rating. One in 10 of these showed ratings that differed from the official score on the FSA website. Which? found several businesses with a zero, one or two rating displaying a four or five rating.

“Our research has found that while some areas are blessed with impressive food hygiene levels across the board, others have large numbers of food businesses, including restaurants and takeaways, with sloppy standards that risk making customers seriously ill,” said Lisa Barber, Which? Magazine editor.

“There is strong evidence to suggest that food businesses up their game when they know they will have to prominently display their hygiene rating. It must urgently become mandatory for food businesses, including restaurants and takeaways, to display their score on the premises and online, so customers can make informed choices.”

Best and worst findings
The consumer group looked at Food Standards Agency data in early March for 384 local council areas in the U.K. and found businesses in parts of London, Birmingham, Southend, Mansfield and Bolton were the worst for hygiene.

Councils with the highest proportion of food businesses with five-ratings were ranked among the best, while those with a high proportion of firms with zero, one and two ratings were among the worst.

In England, Gloucester City was the best area to eat out with 90 percent of businesses achieving the top rating of five for food hygiene. This was followed by the Isles of Scilly and Mid-Devon, both in the South West, where 89 percent of food businesses had a five rating.

England’s five worst areas were all in London. In Ealing, nearly one in five food companies received a zero, one or two rating. Which? also found a similar proportion of poorly rated food businesses in Enfield, Lambeth, Redbridge and Waltham Forest.

Other areas with a high proportion of food businesses scoring a two rating or less included Birmingham and Southend-on-Sea both at 14 percent, Bolton and Mansfield both at 11 percent and Middlesbrough and Slough both at 10 percent.

In Scotland, which has a different food hygiene rating system, Stirling had 98 percent of food businesses rated pass. But about a quarter of businesses in Aberdeen City were given an “improvement required” rating.

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