How would your factory score for food hygiene? The Food Standards Agency (FSA) wants consumers to know. And, what's more, it wants you to tell them.
Under the FSA pilot scheme Scores on the Doors, food businesses are being given a hygiene rating and asked to display it on their premises in a place where it can be seen by the public. Currently, 37 councils across Great Britain are participating in the pilot, which could be rolled out nationally if successful.
The idea of a hygiene rating has been adopted by the FSA from the government's Food Law Codes of Practice for England, Wales and Scotland. These recommend that local authority inspectors grade food premises on a scale of one to five based on a range of criteria. Relevant factors include the record of the business on compliance with food law, any history of complaints and any inherent risk in the product.
The aim is that inspectors will prioritise their time by visiting high risk premises more often. Premises given the lowest rating can expect an inspection every six months; premises at the other end of the scale will be visited no more than once every two years.
The score exists primarily as a guide for local authorities, but the FSA has seen its potential. Raising awareness of the rating will not only act as a guideline for consumers, but as a way of encouraging businesses to reform.
While the idea of a score literally posted on its door may have less immediate impact on a food manufacturer than (say) a restaurant owner, our interest should be in the long term trend exemplified by Scores on the Doors. This will favour a much fuller disclosure of regulatory information about food businesses.
Local authorities cannot enforce the requirement that businesses publish their own scores. But this hardly matters, since there is little doubt that the authorities can themselves publish them. Indeed, the Information Commissioner has already ruled that councils must publish their inspection reports on request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The likelihood is that in the future we will see local authorities publish as a matter of course not only ratings, but full inspection reports. This, in turn, is bound to change the culture of the inspection process - still frequently just a matter of informal relationships between businesses and inspectors - into something much more transparent, bureaucratic and (dare we say it) legalistic in nature. FM
John Cooper is a partner in the Wragge & Co Public Law & Regulation Team.