Call for mandatory food hygiene sign

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Image caption Ratings have been introduced for firms which sell, serve or prepare food

Food safety campaigners in Wales want businesses to be forced to display newly-launched food hygiene ratings.

From this month council inspections of firms serving, selling or preparing food will be used to calculate a rating of between zero and five.

Zero will indicate that "urgent improvement" is necessary while the top rating of five will mean that a business had "very good" standards.

But it will not be compulsory for firms to display their ratings.

The public will be able to access ratings through a searchable database, which will be overseen by the Food Standards Agency.

Food safety campaigners like Maria Battle, a senior director of Consumer Focus Wales, welcomed the principle of the scheme but said it was under-mined by the practice of voluntary display

"We know from the pilots, where the display of rating has been voluntary, that only 26% of businesses have actually displayed them," Ms Battle told BBC Radio Wales' Eye on Wales programme.

"And if it is a low food rating - below three - then it's very, very rare that they display their rating. And they're the businesses that people would choose not to eat in."

'Human suffering'

"Mandatory display in Los Angeles resulted in an immediate 20% reduction in food-related illnesses - people being hospitalised. That saved hundreds of thousands of pounds and also a lot of preventable human suffering."

She added: "It's a no-brainer, it has to be made compulsory."

With all 22 Welsh councils signed up to the scheme, Consumer Focus Wales is lobbying Assembly Members to seek the legal powers from Westminster to make it compulsory for Welsh businesses to display its Food Hygiene Rating.

It is an aim that has the support of the leading microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington, who chaired the inquiry into the 2005 E.coli outbreak in South Wales which claimed the life of five-year-old schoolboy Mason Jones, five years ago this week.

He said: "In principle I'm a believer in having this system as a mandatory system because it is self-evident that commercial pressure on a business - like fewer customers going in - is a very strong incentive for them to up their game."

But the Food Standards Agency, which is co-ordinating the scheme in Wales and England, is confident that voluntary display will work as consumers will draw their own conclusions when businesses choose not to display their Food Hygiene Ratings.

Consumer protection

"What this scheme will deliver is an improvement in food hygiene in businesses and better consumer protection," said Steve Wearne, director of the Food Standards Agency in Wales.

"We believe consumer power should deliver a high level of take up across the board and... will make voluntary display work, but we will keep it under review.

"But making display mandatory would require legislation."

There are other practical objections to making the scheme mandatory.

Julie Barratt, director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Wales, said she feared that council officers would struggle to meet the demand for re-inspection from premises that have made improvements after initially receiving a low rating.

She said: "Environmental health departments are currently under huge pressure and there's a question of resources to go around and implement this scheme as it currently stands.

"Certainly we would need significantly more resources to respond to people on an immediately or 'as soon as' basis."

Eye on Wales is broadcast at 1300 BST on Sunday 3 October on BBC Radio Wales.

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