More than 7,000 takeaways and 8,000 restaurants have not passed inspections, with huge hygiene disparities nationwide


Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant in Newham, east London, was described by inspectors as the worst they had seen. Photograph: Newham borough council

While a zero-rated restaurant will not necessarily be shut down, it will be subject to follow-up inspections and required to address urgent concerns within 28 days of the original visit. The business can then either pay £160 to be reassessed or wait until its next scheduled assessment, usually about six months later, to potentially be given a new score.

Matthew Collins, a principal environmental health officer at Newham council, said a score of zero had to be taken seriously as it indicated a “cumulative failure of management”.

“That would be a failure to keep clean, a failure to maintain accurate temperatures, a failure to disinfect and a failure to have any constructive plan to manage it and/or an infestation of pests. It would be a premises you’d walk into and you’d draw breath,” he said.

“We’re talking about premises we’ve been into where there’s sewage running over the floor, or you stand there and you see something moving out of the corner of your eye, combined with management that have no hold on how to rectify the situation and have obviously let it get into a bad situation with no plan for the future. It’s bad.”

Michael Harding, a food hygiene rating scheme support officer at the FSA, said: “I wouldn’t eat at a zero-rated business. The message from the FSA would be: ‘If it’s got a zero, don’t take the risk.’ Ninety-four per cent of food businesses have a rating of three or better, so there is plenty of choice to eat at a place where they take food hygiene more seriously.”

How to read the ratings

5 Very good – Expect a place with the maximum score to take food safety seriously: all materials and surfaces are clean and in good condition, procedures are in place to prevent cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods, and there will be clear instructions on how to disinfect work surfaces and how to store food. Staff will be properly trained and all records up to date.
4 Good – The place is generally doing well. It might lose points for issues such as not recording cooking temperatures or using materials in the kitchen that are less durable or not as easy to clean.
3 Generally satisfactory – A premises might get a score of three for lacking a designated and properly stocked wash hand basin, for storing food at higher temperatures than required and having food safety records, but not in order.
2 Improvement necessary – A score of two might indicate that the storage and preparation area for food is in a poor state of repair, with kitchen floors, walls or ceilings needing replacing. Also cleaning standards might need improvement, and the premises might be failing in areas such as inadequate procedures for cooling cooked foods, as well as some records missing or incomplete.
1 Much improvement necessary – A premises might get a score of one for cross-contamination of raw and cooked food, having a hand basin that is difficult to access, the kitchen requiring more cleaning, having inadequate records and having staff not trained in food safety.
0 Urgent improvement necessary – A premises gets a score of zero if it raises enough concerns on issues of structure, hygiene and management. All of the concerns raised above, plus not having adequate systems in place, such as staff training and procedures for monitoring cleaning and temperatures. A pest infestation, particularly if mice, rats or cockroaches come into contact with food or where there is no evidence of management investing in pest control, will lead to a score of zero and probably result in the premises being shut down while it deals with the problem.

David Pierce, a food safety inspector for 13 years and the principal environmental health officer at Rossendale borough council in Lancashire, said there were a number of reasons for the varying scores across authorities. “You need to look at the types of businesses. A five in a pub, which just does wet sales [drinks], is different to a five in a restaurant; it’s easier to meet the requirements,” he said.

Inspectors can take legal action against businesses that fail to meet standards. In the year ending April 2016, more than 100 successful prosecutions were concluded against food businesses, resulting in penalties of community service, suspended sentences, fines of up to £90,000 and, in one instance, a three-month prison term.

In 2014-15, more than 160,000 food hygiene enforcement actions were issued nationwide, most of which were written warnings (businesses can be issued with multiple actions). Other sanctions included more than 1,000 cases of voluntary closure – in which an establishment agrees to shut while it improves standards – 416 cases of the seizure, detention and surrender of food, and 26 instances of a suspension or revocation of approval of licence.


While a zero-rated restaurant will not necessarily be shut down, it will face follow-up inspections. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Food premises can be inspected as regularly as every six months. For lower-risk businesses, or those with repeatedly high scores, the frequency of inspections can be reduced to once every few years.

Enforcement officers also follow up complaints made by the public. In the year ending March 2015, there were more than 70,000 customer grievances about food establishments. Pierce’s team of inspectors in Rossendale most commonly receive complaints about Indian takeaways, which he described as “unfair”.

“People make these assumptions. Asian food is far more heavily spiced and people don’t necessarily take into account [that] the spicy nature of the food might have an effect on them. The other thing they say is: ‘It was the last thing I ate.’ But they ate it at 2am after six pints and they wonder why they feel sick in the morning,” he said.

However, food safety officers also deal with legitimate complaints, from the relatively minor – one of Pierce’s team is investigating how a sticking plaster found its way on to a customer’s pizza – to more serious incidents, such as E coliin mixed salad leaves.

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