Restaurants throughout the UK might soon have to display the results of their hygiene inspections if a London pilot scheme is successful. Chris Druce reports
To the man on the street, "scores on the doors" may be nothing more than a Bruce Forsyth catch phrase, but for restaurant owners across the UK it will have wider ramifications than cuddly toys on a conveyor belt.
The Scores on the Doors scheme in question requires restaurants to display their food hygiene inspection scores - whether good or bad.
And with last week's announcement that a London-wide pilot of the scheme got the go-ahead for next April, restaurateurs now face the prospect of their back-of-house practices being open to public scrutiny in the near future.
Although a number of councils, such as London's Greenwich and Camden, and Bournemouth, already publish hygiene scores based on statutory inspections of premises on their websites, the pilot brings mandatory display of ratings on the door closer.
The London trial, which involves all 32 boroughs and the Corporation of London, is being sponsored by the Food Safety Agency (FSA). It will look at the findings from several studies, including Scotland, to come up with a preferred scoring system that can then be adopted by councils as best practice.
An FSA spokeswoman said: "We hope to have a clear winner within two years. However, if that's a decision we can make sooner, we won't hold off."
The London pilot will use a five-star rating system adapted from Camden Council. Initially councils will publish ratings only on their websites, but marketing material will be available to operators so they can voluntarily show their scores on the doors.
Scores on the doors If it proves successful, a London Scores on the Doors scheme could become mandatory, with enforcement from the City's licensing powers through the London Local Authorities Act 2004. Businesses will not be able to use data protection laws to prevent publication, according to guidance from the information commissioner.
However, the picture is less clear for the rest of the UK, where new legislation would be required to force a unified scheme on councils and caterers.
The FSA is keen to take more of a carrot than stick approach at this stage, although it did not rule out mandatory ratings. It will initially take a softly-softly approach, championing one scoring scheme that councils outside the capital can then sign up to. It hopes that once the measure catches the public's imagination, restaurants will feel compelled to be part of the scheme or face being shunned by wary consumers.
"Operators will be able to put up scores if they are doing well, and those that aren't will have something to aim for," said the FSA spokeswoman.
But Geoff Ward, managing director of environmental health consultancy Hygiene Monitoring Services, said that while transparency was always to be welcomed, there were a number of issues to tackle before implementation to make any scheme fit for purpose.
"I don't feel there's been enough debate to find out what the industry wants and what consumers want from such a scheme," he said. "Also, at the moment it seems councils regard this as a cheap way to improve standards through naming and shaming.
"Ultimately this will help no one as it will shatter the trust between operators and inspectors and make people more inclined to hide things."
Lessons can be learnt from overseas. Los Angeles has run a public rating system since 1998, which according to independent analysis has led to a reduction in food-borne illness.
Smiley faces A similar system in New York City has reportedly been a success, and Singapore also posts scores on the doors. Closer to home, Denmark uses smiley faces, with premises that practice good food hygiene awarded a smiley and those that don't a sad face.
The key to the success of the scheme, according to Ward, is standardised auditing criteria. Echoing concerns raised by the British Hospitality Association, he pointed out that hygiene reports currently vary between councils, depending on the inspector's personal bugbears.
"If we get it right, as they have done in parts of the USA, we will achieve a useful benchmarking tool, which will be of enormous benefit to national companies," he said.
"But if there's no consistency in assessment, a rating on a door in one area will bear no relationship to a rating elsewhere."
Public in favour
A survey by consumer rights group Which? revealed strong public support for the publishing of hygiene inspection reports.
An overwhelming majority (97%) of the 2,000 adults interviewed felt "entitled" to know how local restaurants had scored. Seven out of eight interviewees wanted the information displayed before they entered the premises
Nine out of 10 respondents thought scores should be available to the public online.