Getting a handle on food hygiene ratings

by Dr Lisa Ackerley, BHA Food Safety Adviser 

Food safety (or the consequences of failure to comply with food safety standards) is in the news very regularly. I’m often asked – what in particular should a business look out for to keep safe, and more importantly to achieve a “5-star” Food Hygiene Rating (FHR). Increasingly, the public are becoming more interested in FHR; in the latest survey[1] from the Food Standards Agency over 75% of respondents recognised the scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 39% of consumers in the UK said they would definitely base their decision on where to eat on the food hygiene rating, and overall a FHR of 3 or above would be seen to be acceptable – although in England the most frequent response was that anything less than a 4 was unacceptable. Only 16% said they would consider buying from somewhere with a lower rating, so it’s clear that a poor rating is definitely bad for business.

The basics of food safety are fairly obvious – a visually well-maintained, clean and tidy premises is a great start. Whilst those factors are not always the main risk factors in disease causation, first impressions count. Customers and the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) will not be impressed if they step into a place that looks like a tip, which smells of stale fat and refuse, where the toilets are dirty and your feet stick to the carpets. Believe me, I have been faced with this as an EHO. And guess what? Usually the back of house follows the same pattern, and confidence in management, a key factor in the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme, vanishes.

The basics of food hygiene are all legal requirements. The BHA Catering Guide to Good Hygiene Practice gives advice on how to comply with the law as well as best practice. This official guide, endorsed by Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland, is also assured by Cornwall Council – the primary authority for the catering sector. For BHA members signed up to the BHA's free Primary Authority scheme, it means that EHOs all around the country have to accept that if the advice in the guide has been followed, this satisfies the legal requirements.

The BHA Catering Guide will help to get the basics right first; you can then start work on the rest. To get to a Food Hygiene Rating of 5, you will need to have a good, well-trained team, and someone checking they are doing the cleaning up. A clean, tidy and well-maintained building will not be a safe haven for pests. They like it dark, dingy and dirty – with lots of places to get in and hide, and plenty of food left around on the floor or behind the dishwasher.

In addition, management that responds to problems, and fixes them, will improve morale and helps towards a good hygiene rating score – there’s no point in telling people to wash their hands if there is no hot water at the wash basin. Tripping over a broken vacuum packing machine instead of removing it from the business or getting it fixed is just poor management and a simple task that should not be put off. Furthermore, if you are using one vac packer for raw and cooked meats, you will be heading for a big fat FHR of 0. It is therefore important to not to get complacent – expectation of visits from an area manager or external consultant can help to shake things up and keep staff on their toes.

Food safety is not just about the hygiene of the building and environment, you have to demonstrate that you are handling food safely, and controlling the hazards. This is called following the principles of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points or HACCP for short. Designed for space missions wanting zero chance of error, a more generic and user-friendly version is thankfully around now for caterers. Most people incorporate this into their Food Safety Management System (FHMS), which is basically a manual telling everyone (including the EHO) how food safety is managed at the business. Whatever you put in here is up to you, but don’t promise trips to the moon if you can only get to Minehead. In other words, keep is simple, practical and realistic – if you say you will do something such as check burger temperatures in the core to see if they are 75 °C, then you need a working thermometer, some wipes and preferably some records to show that you do just that.

Where some businesses get unstuck is they get a bit carried away and follow some of the TV chefs’ new ideas without assessing the risks. Recently there have been a few clangers which include:

Not safe whatever you do:
Raw chicken sashimi Not safe in any circumstances (around 50% of chicken has campylobacter)
Undercooked liver There is a really high chance of Campylobacter all the way through all livers – not just chicken – it is not like a rare steak
Can be safe if you do a full Hazard Analysis and put in special controls (write your methods down, check you are doing it right every time, speak to the EHO):
Rare steak Sear the outside, don’t use mechanically tenderised meat
Chicken liver parfait Many outbreaks of campylobacter occur – follow the bain-marie method and cook to temperature[2]
Steak tartare Only if you follow safe rules involving sear and shave, and use Lion Brand Egg
Undercooked burgers Only if you follow the FSA rules and inform the EHO in advance of a change of business practice[3]
Undercooked egg dishes Only if you use Lion Brand Egg or pasteurised egg[4]
Sous vide



Make sure you assess this properly and have the correct temperature monitoring equipment, separate vac packing machine for raw and cooked foods, and document your process.

The most important thing, if you want to do something different, is to get specialist advice and if possible run it past your EHO – it is better to do this than carry on regardless and then face the consequences when you get inspected. Above all, don’t just go ahead without working out what the new hazards are, and working out how to ensure your new dishes are safe every time, and be able to prove it – that is HACCP in a nutshell. It is often possible to find a solution to ensure that interesting new food ideas are safe - it’s what the great chefs do behind the scenes – they don’t want to poison their customers, or get a poor FHR either.




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