Different stakeholders have shared positive and negative opinions on the food hygiene rating system in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The research covers the views of local authorities, businesses, and consumers on the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) and was published recently by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Four online discussion groups in February 2022 included 64 consumers in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, who were also asked about six potential changes to regulations. Awareness of the FHRS varied among consumers, as did the extent to which people used it.

Public view
Participants often described FHRS ratings as making little difference to decisions about buying food from different kinds of businesses even if they were familiar with the system. Other factors, such as the personal experience of a food business and the amount of choice in their area, were of greater importance. Respondents also said ratings were based on inspections that happened several years ago and expressed concern they may not reflect current food safety practices.

Participants across the three nations were generally not aware that rating display is voluntary in England. This was often viewed as limiting the potential value and effectiveness of the system. It is mandatory in Wales and Northern Ireland.

They expected that food businesses would be inspected regularly – with this ranging from a few times a year to every two years. 

People were open to the idea of using third-party independent and internal audits but they wanted FSA oversight. They were strongly against remote inspections as an alternative to physical ones, particularly for businesses that prepare fresh food.

Many consumers supported using a reduced inspection regime as an incentive to recognize compliant businesses and encourage them to maintain high standards. However, they didn’t want very low-risk businesses, such as corner shops selling pre-packed food, removed from FHRS.

Views were mixed on supermarkets and other large or multi-site firms being assessed as a whole, rather than as individual stores. While some said it would reduce costs and enable a focus on higher-risk businesses, others raised concerns about poor-performing premises benefitting from an overall rating that did not reflect their practices. They also worried about fairness for smaller companies if larger competitors had a different inspection regime.

A public comment period on modernized food hygiene delivery is open until the end of June. Proposals seek to enable local authorities to spend more time on businesses that are non-compliant or pose a high risk to public health and reduce regulatory burdens on compliant or low-risk firms. 

Private sector perspective
Many businesses were positive about the value of FHRS. However, a few felt that it offered limited or no value to their operations. A total of 56 participants took part in the research from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and 10 large firms operating across all three nations.

Some businesses in rural areas said that because of a lack of alternatives, customers would buy from them regardless of their rating. Large firms also saw less value around customer engagement, suggesting people did not seem to consider FHRS ratings before buying their food. 

Some mentioned FHRS in enabling them to trade through online aggregators such as Just Eat, Deliveroo, and Uber Eats, and others raised the role of their rating when applying for insurance.

Overall, firms wanted to see FHRS assessments happening at least as frequently as they do now. A few large businesses were frustrated that their premises had not been inspected for three or more years. They felt visits should be more frequent to maintain the value and integrity of the scheme. Some discussed how they felt reduced inspection frequencies were already happening because of COVID-19 and general resourcing pressures.

A national takeaway chain said they have a high staff and management turnover and many employees are inexperienced. It valued the FHRS and inspections as a way of providing an additional check, alongside its own internal controls and audits. It was concerned that changing the inspection frequency could undermine the situation.

In Wales and Northern Ireland, businesses wanted mandatory displays to continue. In England, most respondents felt it should be introduced. One business in England displayed their rating when they received a 5, but when it dropped to a 3 they removed the sticker.

Overall, businesses described the FHRS as fair. However, they highlighted concerns around consistency, unannounced inspections, and administrative burden. A few large businesses suggested introducing a clearer process to ensure consistency. They said there is no ability to have a timely second opinion from outside a local authority to ensure ratings and re-ratings are fair. Some small firms felt unannounced inspections were unfair as outlets might be caught on a bad day, have paperwork issues or key staff missing, and then have that rating for a long time.

Local authority response
Local authority officials were happy with the current FHRS and said it helped encourage consistency for regulating food hygiene standards. Fifty participants took part in March 2022.

Respondents raised challenges associated with re-assessments and revisits such as businesses wanting a quicker re-assessment process because of there being a fee and sites with a lower rating looking to avoid re-assessment charges by re-registering as a new business.

There was concern that re-assessments linked to online aggregators were often motivated by wanting to get back on the platforms, rather than about improving food hygiene. There was an expectation that after achieving the minimum standard, these firms were unlikely to maintain it.

English officials said the system needs to be reviewed to keep up with changes in the types of companies since it was introduced like online platforms and home-based businesses selling food. They also referred to challenges around resources.

Those in Wales were strongly opposed to changes to inspection frequency based on compliance. Both representatives from Northern Ireland had reservations about reducing inspection frequency based on compliance for higher-risk businesses. There was some support for such a move in England but also significant concerns.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)