What do the Food Hygiene Ratings really mean?

What do the Food Hygiene Ratings really mean?

I recently went behind the scenes on a Cardiff City Council kitchen visit to find out exactly how they work out those little green-and-black ratings on the doors. 

It was a freezing cold Monday night when I met Owain from the Shared Regulatory Services office – it was going to be his job to show me around the workings of an Food Hygiene Rating inspection inside Demiro’s Restaurant in Cardiff Bay. If, like me, you’re always fascinated to discover the ratings of your favourite restaurants and watering holes, you’ll  understand why I was keen to find out how the criteria worked, and what the real difference is between a restaurant with a rating of 5, and one with a rating of 0.

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After sitting down with Demiro’s restaurant manager and the owner for coffee and introductions, we started going through the mountains of paperwork that needs to be completed and kept up to date when running a restaurant. It was then that I realised just how much admin there is to undertake when working with food. Whilst much of it (e.g. documented food safety management procedures, health and safety guidelines, fire safety management procedures) needs to be prepared before you open up – and then simply kept up to date as you go along, it would certainly be an eye opener for anyone for anyone with a desk job and grand ideas of escaping a life of admin by opening a little cafe – they’d have no such luck!

Owain then explained how the ratings are calculated generally, and scored on many different variables to work out a business’s overall Food Hygiene Rating. Rating is based on three main areas:

  1. How hygienically the food is handled – this includes how it is prepared, cooked, re-heated, cooled and stored
  2. The condition of the structure of the buildings – the cleanliness, layout, lighting, ventilation and other facilities
  3. How the business manages and records what it does to make sure food is safe

I took a sensible guess that number one would be the most important criteria that officers look out for, but it’s actually the management and recording of food safety processes which can affect a restaurant’s overall rating the most. I asked if this was perhaps a  bureaucratic obsession with admin? Owain argued though, that in adhering to the correct processes at all times and filling in the right forms time and time again, it becomes much harder to do anything that could be deemed unsafe or unhygienic – resulting in a safer kitchen almost by default.

After checking all of the paperwork, we got down to the fun part and took a tour of the kitchen to see what a rating of 5/5 actually looks like – Demiro’s have been in business for a while, and have worked hard to keep their rating up. Of course, I had to wear the most hideous hairnet and white-coat, complete with snooping torch.

OH THE GLAMOUR.

OH THE GLAMOUR.

I was amazed by how thorough Owain was. We checked things like the temperature of the dishwasher – is it hot enough to really clean things? The way all staff wash their hands – is it thorough enough, and do they touch the dirty tap with their clean hands again afterwards?  We checked where food is stored, prepared and cooked – is it being moved about the kicthen too much, risking contamination? It was a long process which required meticulous attention to detail; in total, our visit took more than three hours – and that was keeping it short!

So what did I learn?

Firstly, that a 3/5 is not a ‘bad’ rating. In fact, it’s deemed ‘satisfactory’ or generally acceptable and certainly doesn’t mean that the business is dirty or unsafe. Whilst Hangfire Smokehouse‘s butchery in Llantwit Major has a score of 5/5, Penylan Pantry and Pizza Pronto for instance, both have a respectable 4/5 – these are still very good.

Secondly, that following all of the guidelines is a lot of hard work – or certainly seems it to someone like me, whose only experience of a kitchen is of the one I have at home. For instance, watching a chef preparing a steak at Demiros, I noted that he would need at least three different utensils to follow the correct procedure:

  1. Pick up the RAW steak with clean tongs
  2. Flip the steak with a  fish-slice, touching ONLY the cooked side
  3. Use new  tongs to pick up the now sealed (cooked on BOTH sides) steak

This procedure prevents contact between both raw and cooked meat on one utensil, but how many of us do this at home? I know I certainly don’t. Couple this with the fact that my cat litter tray lives at the end of my kitchen (gross, I know) and I am pretty sure that Casa-City-Hippy is looking at a food hygiene rating of zero. Yikes.

Thirdly, I learned that although forcing a business to display the ratings can seem harsh, it also appears to be fairly managed. Back in 2013 when it became the law, there was a backlash from small businesses who argued that it would be damaging for them to have to display a lower score.  It stands to reason that often it is small or new businesses that are given a poor rating at first, as it takes time and effort to get used to the right way of doing things. That doesn’t sound so good does it?

However, I learned through Owain that Cardiff has some of the highest standards of food hygiene and safety of any city; no doubt due to the fact that displaying the rating on the doors is compulsory, unlike in England where it is not. Encouragingly, Owain also explained that his role is to work with low-rated businesses in particular, to help them improve and correct any issues as part of an ongoing process. It is his belief that there is no reason why any and all businesses can’t achieve a rating of 5/5.

An example which certainly supports Owain’s theory is the fact that tired, old Dorothy’s on chippy lane is rated 5/5, so clearly it is possible for a small business in a ‘dirty’ area to keep their game squeaky clean. By contrast, the almost brand-spanking new and expensive Shake Shack in St David’s 2 has a rating of 1/5, meaning that ‘urgent improvement is needed’. Perhaps even more interesting to note is that the rest of their UK restaurants are in contrast, rated 4 or 5/5. Knowing what I know now, I feel I can make an educated guess that their poor Cardiff rating is probably down to a significant lapse in a certain piece of paperwork, and it won’t be long until their Cardiff restaurant is up there with the rest.

My conclusion

Overall, I think the Welsh policy of displaying a businesses’s Food Hygiene Rating to the public is a good idea. I’m all for giving consumers more information and power over their choices, and though it can be tough on smaller, newer businesses at first, as a whole the visible ratings policy raises everyones game, and helps to improve standards across the board.

That being said, having been given an understanding of how highly paperwork is valued, and how it can sometimes take a little bit of time for some businesses to get everything right, I won’t be judging those 2, 3, and 4’s out of 5 too harshly without making my own observations and enquiries, too – and I would encourage everyone else to do the same.

Whether you’re eating out or ordering in, you can check the food hygiene rating  for wherever you’re eating, by:

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