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Food Hygiene Rating Schemes (FHRS) provide consumers with information about the hygiene standards at food establishments, enabling them to make informed choices about where they eat and purchase food. They have also been found to drive up hygiene standards. Statutory schemes were introduced in Wales in 2013 and Northern Ireland in 2016 making participation compulsory for local authorities and the display of food hygiene ratings mandatory for food establishments. In England a voluntary scheme is in place. Scotland has its own Food Hygiene Information Scheme.
Businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are rated 0 (urgent improvement necessary) to 5 (very good) following an inspection by a local authority officer. Food businesses are issued with a sticker showing the rating which must be displayed in a conspicuous place at or near each entrance to the establishment. Ratings are also published on the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) website.
One of the consequences of the scheme being voluntary in England is that only 55% of food businesses display their hygiene ratings, compared with 89% of businesses in Wales, and 87% in Northern Ireland. Public support for the mandatory display of ratings has been consistently high, with 85% of respondents in England supporting mandatory display in the FSA’s most recent survey of UK consumer attitudes. The FSA has said that it is committed to bringing forward the mandatory display of ratings in England and progress is expected this year.
We have been calling for a statutory food hygiene rating scheme in England for a number of years. This key information would help consumers make informed decisions about where they eat and purchase food and compel food businesses to display their ratings.
Unfortunately, the number of local authority food safety officers has been dropping. In England, the number fell from 1,489 to 1,217 FTEs between 2010/11 and 2019/20 – a drop of 18% in 9 years.
Alongside our call to mandate the display of food hygiene ratings in England, we have been supporting the growth of professionals involved in carrying out food hygiene inspections, by providing training, professional accreditation and encouraging more local authorities to consider taking on an apprentice in environmental health.
Boosting the profile of environmental health to the next generation of workers is also essential for the future of food safety and enforcement of hygiene standards. We are therefore targeting those in educational settings as well as professionals with transferable skills seeking a career change to ensure more people consider environmental health as a profession.
In October 2019, we submitted a call for evidence in relation to an independent report on the government’s National Food Strategy (NFS). In this submission, we recommended that the NFS should:
Part one of the strategy was published in July 2020. Part two was published on 15 July 2021. In 2021, we also took the opportunity to submit additional evidence to inform the National Food Strategy White Paper.
Following the recommendations made in the two-part National Food Strategy, the government has committed to respond formally with a White Paper, due in May 2022.
Through the CIEH Workforce survey, we identified problems with the recruitment of suitably qualified officers and significant use of agency staff to deliver environmental health services.
Results of the survey indicated that local authorities in England are not funding enough training for the next generation of environmental health professionals; 56% of local authorities did not have any paid or unpaid trainees in environmental health in either 2018/19 or 2019/20, and 70% did not have a single environmental health apprentice. Not having any budget (66%) and not having the capacity to mentor (52%) were the primary reasons given for not taking on any trainees.
Introducing a statutory food hygiene rating scheme in England will need political support for the introduction of new legislation, coupled with measures to ensure there are adequate resources in place to deliver the scheme on the ground. The latest figures indicate that local authorities in England do not have equivalent resources for this work as those in the devolved nations.
The National Audit Office found that between 2012/13 and 2017/18, local authority expenditure on food hygiene in England fell by an estimated 19% from £125 million to £101 million and food hygiene staff numbers dropped by an estimated 13%. In 2019/20, local authorities in England had 2.9 officers per 1,000 food establishments compared with 5.5 in Wales and 4.3 in Northern Ireland.
As well as ensuring adequate numbers of food safety officers on the ground to sustain a statutory scheme, there would need to be an investment in training to ensure the consistent application of the scheme. We will continue to campaign to ensure any proposals for a statutory scheme in England address these issues for the benefit of consumers and businesses.