02.Score those doors
Going out for a Saturday morning breakfast at a local café or getting Chinese takeaway for dinner is something most of us look forward to – but do you ever stop to think about what has happened to the food behind the scenes before it arrives on your plate?
Cockroaches in flour, rodents given free rein, cooked chickens allowed to sit out for 14 hours, mould and accumulated waste – these are just some of the infringements that environmental health officers (EHOs) find in restaurants and kitchens. Some have even been found at well-known chains. Consumers are largely left in the dark when it comes to food safety, so you can’t make an informed choice about where you eat. We took a closer look at these schemes to find out what a national program should look like.
Leading the way
Scores on doors-style schemes have been used increasingly overseas, and in Australia since 1995. CHOICE identified eight different ones run by councils and organisations across the country: Manly and Canada Bay councils, and the Food Authority in NSW, Brisbane City Council in Queensland, Whitehorse City and Glen Eira City councils in Victoria, and Charles Sturt and Salisbury councils in SA.
The premise behind these schemes is to turn the score given to businesses after a council inspection into a rating that consumers can use to identify the cleanliness of a business. For example, a business that meets minimum legal requirements for food safety might be awarded three stars, like a hotel, or perhaps an A grade, like on a school report card. This would be displayed on premises for all to see.
Why a national scheme?
As it stands, each council running a restaurant hygiene scheme uses its own system. A five-star rating in one may be equal to a three-star rating in another, while three stars might be an A rating somewhere else – all pretty confusing if you are outside your local area or interstate. A national scheme would mean that, no matter where you were, you could make an informed decision about a safe place to eat and the rating would mean the same thing wherever you went.
As long as the schemes are run by councils they’re not mandatory, so only businesses that opt in need to display their rating. And they’re able to opt out if they don’t like that rating. Last year we came a step closer to a more widely used scheme with the announcement of a voluntary system for NSW. The NSW Food Authority recently finished its pilot program, so we’re waiting to see what happens next.
What would a national scheme look like?
While all the schemes we looked at are a step in the right direction, none is perfect and some perform better than others in key areas. Members of the CHOICE food team put their heads together to assess each one thoroughly, focusing on three areas – how the schemes work, amount of information provided to consumers and how it is conveyed, and whether they encourage and reward those businesses that go above and beyond what is legally required.
How the schemes work
The intricacies of how these schemes run and the administration required can make or break it. Under this category we looked at four different areas:
Inspection process All the schemes we looked at have integrated the rating into the regular inspection process, so it poses no further burden. This approach also keeps costs down for organisations on a tight budget.
Who did it best? All did this well. A scheme that is easily integrated into regular processes is what CHOICE would like to see running nationally.
Inspection frequency How often premises are checked is vital. A lot can change very quickly, so an annual checkup is needed at least. All schemes inspect at least yearly except Brisbane City, which inspects the highest rated less frequently, and Canada Bay and Manly, which inspect every six months.
Who did it best? Canada Bay and Manly, which go above and beyond the minimum. We support inspections at least once every 12 months, with further check-ups for poor performers.
Inspection template How businesses are assessed is also an important factor, and something that varies greatly between the councils. While all have to meet the same basic benchmarks as outlined in the Food Standards Code and state legislation, different approaches leads to varying levels of subjectivity. Some councils, such as Canada Bay and Charles Sturt, use a black and white tick-box approach, while Manly and Whitehorse City councils give a numerical score that is weighted according to risk – meaning food allowed to sit in a balmy 25 degrees earns more demerits than a couple of chipped tiles.
Who did it best? Manly, Whitehorse City, Brisbane City and the NSW Food Authority. While Canada Bay sees the simplicity of their template as a strength, CHOICE believes the detailed approach creates a less subjective score.
Compliance history Three schemes take business track record into consideration. If they have had any serious breaches, caused anyone to jump on the porcelain bus or go to hospital in the past 12 months, they can’t achieve a high rating. They then have to earn back their right to a top score by maintaining high standards. For other schemes, the assessment is more a snapshot of the moment the EHO visits.
Who did it best? Brisbane, Glen Eira and Whitehorse city councils. We believe taking history into consideration encourages businesses to maintain high standards all the time.
2.Encouraging and rewarding best practice
Rewards businesses that go above and beyond This is one of the most important parts of any scheme – what the standards are and how this is reflected in the rating. In some councils, all that is required to achieve the highest rating is meeting the minimum requirements set out in legislation. If we want our food to be handled and prepared safely in the best possible way, a best practice approach should be taken. The Canada Bay, Brisbane City and Salisbury schemes award three stars (out of five) for meeting legislation, but to achieve a high grade a food safety program is required. While it sounds like a lot of work, it’s what is needed to maintain high standards. Victoria is currently the only state that requires a food safety program by law.
Who did it best? Brisbane City, Canada Bay and Salisbury. We want a national scheme where higher ratings, such as four or five stars, are above and beyond basic requirements.
Council goes above and beyond If we expect our food businesses to strive towards excellent food hygiene practices, it’s reasonable to expect the councils do the same. Some schemes provide incentives and rewards to high achievers that encourage others to follow suit. Brisbane City has an incentive program in place where four- and five-star rated businesses get discounts on their annual licence fees and also receive marketing opportunities. Canada Bay has an Eat Out Week once a month. A selection of four- and five-star businesses are invited to be listed in a “food passport” with special offers for diners.
Who did it best? Brisbane City, Canada Bay and Glen Eira City. Promotion encourages good results and is an effective way of providing more information for consumers.
Training, materials and support If we expect our businesses to be up to scratch, they are going to need a helping hand. Some councils already provide training workshops for food handlers – an essential for any employee – that are recognised by their schemes. Some even provide free information booklets and educational materials. What sets some councils apart from the rest is by providing staff training logs, temperature control logs, cleaning schedules and food monitoring records for businesses to use.
Who did it best? Brisbane City, Canada Bay and Glen Eira. Support for businesses to achieve best practice in food safety is vital to a successful scheme.
No scheme, no matter how well designed, will work unless consumers know about and understand it. To make a scheme consumer friendly, information needs to be freely available.
Pamphlets, brochures and certificates should be available in store and from the council, so consumers have information when and where it matters. Most provide pamphlets and brochures explaining what the scheme is and what the ratings mean. An important part is providing a certificate or sticker for businesses to display, so consumers know what to look for. Including information on what the rating means adds further value.
Who did it best? Charles Sturt, Manly, Brisbane City, Canada Bay and the NSW Food Authority. Any business
that meets legislative requirements or achieves higher should receive a certificate or sticker to display, and provide information directly to consumers.
Information on council websites If a council is running a program you would expect it to appear on their website, but this is not always the case. A consumer should be able to go online and find information about the scheme. A list of businesses involved in the program and their ratings should also be available. All schemes except the NSW Food Authority and Whitehorse City Council have this. Brisbane City Council goes one better than a list, with a fully interactive search feature. Going to a particular suburb for dinner? Just type the suburb name or postcode and it will return all the rated businesses in the area.
Who did it best? Brisbane City, Canada Bay, Manly, Salisbury, Charles Sturt and Glen Eira City. Information should be easily accessible online with a listing of businesses and their ratings. A database that is searchable and updated regularly is ideal.
The proof is in the pudding – literally
Los Angeles, California, launched a scores-on-doors program, which has been running since 1998. As a result, there has been a significant reduction in hospitalizations due to food poisoning – showing how schemes such as these can boost standards and make food safer. Also in the US, the New York City Health Department began a mandatory program in July 2010. Preliminary results suggest that this has had a big impact on the food safety standards in the city. Of the 10,000 restaurants assessed, 87% received either an A or B grade.
More than 200 local authorities in the UK run similar programs. Like Australia, they all run differently. At present, the UK Food Standards Agency is working on a national scheme.
These schemes have proven their worth. A national scheme here would make food safer and put power to choose back in the hands of consumers.