The rate of food hygiene scores displayed online is very low, according to a Food Standards Agency (FSA) project.

FSA wants to make display of Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) ratings mandatory for businesses online. Physical display is required in Wales and Northern Ireland but not in England.

A sample size of 1,500 included hotels, pubs, restaurants, cafes, canteens, and takeaways. The project was in 2021 but results have only recently been made public.

More than half of the sample had a business website and it was estimated that the prevalence of online display was about 3 percent. Takeaways were more likely than other outlet types to display a rating, while pubs were less likely.

All websites were displaying a 5 rating, apart from one, which was actually not the business’s own website. A comparison with actual ratings found that two sites were rated 4.

Toward online display
Data from Google Places was matched against a sample of businesses from the FHRS open data. Only an establishment’s own website was included, so a social media page or presence on an aggregator such as Deliveroo were not taken into account. Website images were matched against reference images of FHRS ratings, although false positives and false negatives were found with the algorithm threshold used.

Legislation for mandatory online display is being considered. A version was drafted in Northern Ireland in 2017, but fell through because of suspension of the parliament. An impact assessment for rollout of mandatory display including online in England suggested a cost to businesses of compliance and to local authorities of enforcement.

Researchers examined a sub-sample of 100 firms with no business website. Of these, 37 had a Facebook page and seven were showing a rating. However, it was the wrong score in four cases.

“The difficulties encountered in finding food businesses’ online presence would provide some support for requiring businesses to provide this information, at point of registration or inspection, and for local authorities to submit it with their FHRS return,” said the report.

Recovery plan second assessment
FSA has also published part two of an assessment on a recovery plan due to the pandemic. The COVID-19 Local Authority Recovery Plan started in June 2021 and applied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland until the end of March this year.

The first period of assessments was between April and July 2022 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A second period from January and March 2023 in England included seven local authorities.

Five of seven local authorities entered the recovery period in July 2021 with some food officers still diverted to enforcement of COVID-19 regulations and dealing with local outbreaks. However, at the time of the assessments, all officers had returned to food law enforcement work.

Most authorities were able to meet or exceed recovery plan milestones. Where deadlines for onsite interventions had been missed, it was for reasons beyond their control.

From April 2023 onward, local authorities said they would enter the new financial year with significant numbers of overdue low risk food hygiene and medium and low risk food standards interventions as a result of the pandemic.

One authority reported a significant increase in workload during the recovery period, because of more activities associated with the issuing of Export Health Certificates following the UK’s exit from the European Union.

All local councils assessed reported an increase in the levels of food company non-compliance during the recovery period, because of high staff turnover and employee recruitment issues for some firms and the impact of the cost of living crisis. Other suspected reasons for the decrease in compliance included a lack of business knowledge and the extended time between interventions.

A significant increase in re-rating requests was noted because of aggregator platforms requiring a minimum FHRS rating of 3. Financial incentives for companies linked to the use of online food sales platforms were a significant driver to improve food hygiene compliance levels for some businesses. 

Three-quarters of local authorities used remote interventions occasionally or had attempted to. When used, councils adopted a risk-based approach and in most cases, they were for low-risk verification checks, at low-risk businesses or to provide advice to firms prior to onsite interventions. The verdict was that remote checks introduced additional steps in the process and did not improve the efficiency of onsite inspections. 

Most authorities supported the recovery plan but one felt it was focused on food hygiene matters and limited recognition was given to food standards controls.

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