THEY will strike unannounced and sometimes in the dead of night – if you are licenced to sell food in Burton, you can expect a visit from this group of hygiene inspectors.
The team behind East Staffordshire Borough Council’s Rate My Place scheme have the power to name and shame businesses that are posing a health risk to the public.
Rigorous inspections are regularly carried out at outlets across the borough, with every area of the operation closely scrutinised. Once the inspection is complete owners are then issued with a rating between zero and five.
If inspectors find anything that needs to be improved on, the gory details are laid bare for the public to see and if there is a significant health risk uncovered, the team can even apply to have them closed them down, though that has only happened on a couple of occasions since the scheme was introduced seven years ago.
But just how effective is the process in keeping the public safe? A question that has been raised is that if businesses which receive the worst scores are allowed to continue serving food, what is done to ensure they improve and are not posing a health risk to the public?
Bosses instead say emphasis is placed on working with owners to improve businesses that fail the test, but insist that does not mean the process does not have teeth.
Chiefs are adamant that the system works and when presented with the figures, it’s hard to argue.
While there are the occasional horror stories, the majority of food outlets across East Staffordshire are compliant and take pride in keeping their premises spotless.
Currently, 94 per cent of businesses in the borough have a rating of three or higher, with only one in 100 receiving the worst possible score of zero.
But when they are bad, they are very bad.
One of the most alarming cases of hygiene failings that has been uncovered in Burton was reported by the Mail in January and came at Express Chicken, in Borough Road, where owner Sajid Mahmood was fined £7,500, after dead mice were found at the takeaway and a string of other shocking failings unearthed.
Despite the hefty fine, Mahmood was not banned from being involved in running a food business.
The Ni Hao Chinese takeaway in Waterloo Street, and the Shoulder of Mutton pub, in Barton under Needwood, have also been the recipients of zero star ratings in recent months.
Another difficulty faced by Rate My Place team is that, although you will often see certificates proudly adorning the walls of pubs, restaurants, takeaways, shops and cafes that have received top marks, there is no legal requirement in England to display the findings in full view of customers.
It is instead hoped that people will actively seek to dig into the past of their eatery of choice before placing their order, however realistic that may be.
But Rachel Liddle, enforcement team leader for environmental health at East Staffordshire Borough Council, insists the public can access more information about where they are eating than ever before.
She told the Mail: “The inspection reports were a bit generic seven years ago but are now more descriptive of what the problem is. It’s alright saying this place has got a hygiene rating of three, but they are now able to see what the reasons are for that. It’s about giving that choice to the public.”
Enforcement services manager Andrew Wainwright said: “We now provide much more information and it allows people to make a decision on where they want to eat.”
Mrs Liddle said outlets will only be closed down in exceptional circumstances.
“If a business is closed, there has to be an immediate risk to health,” she said. If there is that risk, we can issue a hygiene emergency prohibition notice to close the business. If we find a mouse infestation, a rat infestation, cockroaches or raw drainage we would take action, but it has to be particularly severe. There have been two or three in the last few years, so it is not a regular occurrence.”
Mr Wainwright said inspectors are mindful of the potential impact of the score they decide to impose, but above all they have to consider the safety of the public.
He said: “Officers are mindful of the potential impact for the business and we will try to assist them and be clear with them why they have received that rating.”
But the team stressed that when failings are uncovered at a business, it is not about seeking to close it down, but looking at how it can improve and they insists that has been the case with many establishments.
Mrs Liddle said: “We identified that threes were getting to fours, the fours were getting to fives, and hopefully the fives were staying at fives, but the businesses that were getting zeros and ones were stagnant so we had to look at how we could get them to improve and what the reasons were for non-compliance.
“Of 45 of those businesses that we actively targeted, 42 have improved. It is not there to be a deterrent or to scare owners, what we want to do is encourage businesses to improve and we have seen improvement at the bulk of them in the borough.”
Mr Wainwright conceded the red tape which lets failing businesses get away without displaying their scores is an issue, but that they counter that by trying to make the findings as accessible as possible.
He said: “In terms of displaying the rating, we haven’t got the legal requirement, but the reports are still picked up by the press and the public. There are now apps available, so we are trying to inform the public as much as we can.”
But what the Rate My Place bosses wanted to make clear more than anything else is that, on the whole, Burton is a safe place to eat.
Mr Wainwright said: “There are some exceptional premises in East Staffordshire. The majority are three, four and five. Certainly the majority are higher level rather than lower level.”
Mrs Liddle added: “Generally there is a very good level of compliance.”
The borough council’s deputy leader for regulatory services Sonia Andjelkovic said she had no doubt the scheme was making a difference.
She said: “The scheme has seen an overall increase in levels of compliance and improvements in food hygiene as businesses can rate themselves against similar food businesses.
“By inspecting premises throughout the borough we are able to provide feedback to the public on the hygiene ratings of a premise, allowing them to make more informed decisions on where they choose to eat.”