20 Ways to Sabotage a Food Hygiene Inspection

August 13, 2019
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Achieving a food hygiene rating of 5 is a significant seal of approval in the hospitality industry. It lets your customers know that you operate hygienically, efficiently and take food safety seriously. We have supplied thousands of businesses with food hygiene training and regularly work with Environmental Health Officers (EHOs), so we know just how much these ratings mean to both businesses and consumers.

On this occasion, we wanted to find out exactly what not to do for a food hygiene inspection. We caught up with Paul Turner, Principal Environmental Health Officer for Hull City Council, who was only too eager to set the record straight about sub par ratings being down to “just the paperwork.”

Read on to find out what really “drives EHOs round the twist”…

1. Don’t bother registering your business

If you take over an existing food business or set up a new one yourself, registering your business is the first step you should take. Many businesses in Paul’s experience fall at the first hurdle, as they fail to register within the required time frame – or at all. Some businesses have wrongly believed that you have to wait for the EHO to visit before you can register.

man with laptop in restaurant

Tip: As soon as you acquire or start to set up your business, register with your local authority at least 28 days before you open. This will automatically put you on the list for an EHO inspection. The sooner you do this, the stronger your Confidence in Management will be, which is one of the 3 criteria needed to achieve a good score.

2. Let the local paper know about your new business before your local authority

If a shiny spread in the local paper is the first an EHO hears of your new business, it doesn’t get you off to the best start. It implies that you have been trading before registering your business and that your priorities are in the wrong order – you’re more keen to start making money than you are to operate in the safest and most hygienic way for your customers.

Tip: You can be fined and face legal action if you are found to be providing food to customers without registration or approval. Registering your business is free and you cannot be refused.

3. Don’t request an advice visit

It astounds EHOs that food businesses wouldn’t want to maximise any available help in gaining the best possible score. In Paul’s local area of Hull, EHO advice visits are offered for free. An EHO visits the premises informally, prior to an official inspection, and provides feedback on your current operating standards. They can give you a good idea of what you’re already doing well and areas you might want to pay more attention to going forward.

Tip: “Take some responsibility,” says Paul, “be proactive, request the visit and establish good management intentions from the start.” There might be a fee to pay in some localities, but surely this is worth it to make sure you begin trading up to standard right away.

4. Wait for the EHO to bring your food safety documentation

The paperwork, or lack thereof, is often a claim for why businesses haven’t achieved a good score. Paul stresses that this is not the case:

“It’s the willingness to comply that EHOs need to see and, if premises owners are attributing their score to ‘just the paperwork,’ they clearly aren’t placing much importance on a very serious aspect of the criteria which is Confidence in Management.”

Far from being “just a temperature book,” it is a full, documented safety management system that EHOs need to see in order to believe you are fulfilling Confidence in Management and paying attention to your Hygienic Handling of Food – two out of the three criteria that make up a food hygiene rating.

Safety management systems refers to documented evidence that you are following food safety practices. This can include HACCP, staff training records, and the ‘Safer Food, Better Business’ pack, to name a few. To fulfil that all-important criteria of Confidence in Management, all of these are up to you as a manager or owner to implement before the inspection and, most importantly, before you start trading.

Tip: The FSA website has free tools for small businesses to use when developing a safety management system using the HACCP principles. For food businesses where the risk is greater, such as catering or experimental cooking, more in depth systems such as CookSafe maybe useful.

what goes into a food hygiene rating infographic

Confidence in the management of food safety and practices has appeared several times so far. Yet this is just one out of three criteria EHOs are looking for you to fulfil. The other crucial elements are concerned with how hygienically food is handled and the condition of your premises, facilities and equipment.

5. Don’t keep accurate training records

Shockingly, Paul describes situations where, upon inspection, staff have produced training records bearing the name of someone who no longer works there…

In order to have confidence that staff are serving the public safely, EHOs need to see that they have relevant food hygiene knowledge and awareness. It’s important that your staff can demonstrate an application of this knowledge to a variety of different situations.

Tip: One way of evidencing your knowledge and commitment is through training certificates. Level 1, 2 and 3 Food Hygiene for Catering all provide a breakdown of food safety practices and legislation. Similarly, additional training around other important subjects, such as allergens, evidence your commitment to staying proactive with food safety matters and providing the best for your customers.

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6. Don’t wear an apron

During an inspection, Paul has seen a number of managers so keen to demonstrate they have everything in good order that they forget the basics, such as wearing an apron.

Paul essentially highlights that inspections aren’t designed to catch businesses out. Rather, they exist to ensure you’re operating in a way that is safe to the public. “Your normal routine is all you need to do, as long as normal is safe.”

Tip: It’s easy to let nerves get the better of you when you know you are being watched. When the EHO arrives, take a moment to visualise and focus on your usual daily routine so that you don’t get let down by the small things. If these are not your normal routine, look at what you can do to implement good habits and practice them every day.

7. Definitely don’t wear a clean apron

Paul winces as he recalls inspections during which aprons looked and smelled as though they had never seen a washing machine. Of course, you won’t know the EHO is coming to inspect your premises. However, you should have a consistent supply of clean aprons ready for each new day.

Tip: Retrieve a fresh apron and demonstrate using clean equipment while the EHO is conducting their inspection. We’ve said nerves can play a big factor in letting people down, so write down a list of essential things you need to remember and keep this handy at all times.

8. Don’t wash your hands

During plenty of 90 minute inspections, only Paul and his colleague washed their hands. Similarly, Paul has carried out numerous inspections where there has been no hot water. With no temporary measure in place, he was unable to give a rating above a 1 due to the facilities of the premises not being fit for purpose.

“It really is a shame because people miss the opportunity to show what they can do.”

chef sneezing while preparing food

As a food handler, washing your hands at regular intervals should be second nature by now, especially if you are handling multiple different foods.

Tip: If it helps, put posters up above key stations in your business, to remind food handlers of the importance of hand washing.

9. Leave your rubbish for “the landlord to sort”

EHOs do not want to see a collection of black bin liners outside the premises. It is not the responsibility of the landlord and “taking it home with you at the end of the day” does not suggest proactivity either.

Just like your teacher at school knew your dog didn’t eat your homework, this scenario smells a lot like you don’t have a licensed carrier of waste. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 & Environmental Protection Act (Duty of Care) Regulations 1991, you have a duty of care to store, transport and dispose of your waste without harming the environment. You can read more about those responsibilities here.

Tip: Make sure you have clearly labelled bins that keep food separate where necessary. Educate your staff and have a clear point of reference where they can access the regulations concerning food and catering waste. You can show this to the EHO to demonstrate you are following procedure.

10. Key facilities still due to arrive? Open anyway!

Because who needs a washbasin in a kitchen where raw meat is handled, fresh salad is prepared and the occasional staff member pops out for a cigarette…

Paul recalls an inspection where he noticed the premises did not have a wash hand basin of any description in the main kitchen. They had been trading for 6 weeks.

“It didn’t matter that their other locations had ratings of 5, nor did it matter that there had been delivery problems. It was no one’s fault or responsibility other than that of the food business operator.”

This affected the business across all 3 areas of the rating scheme. Their facilities and premises were not fit for trading – hygienic handling of food was virtually impossible because of the missing wash hand basin. Because emergency steps hadn’t been made to rectify the issue (ordering a new one!) and the owners decided to carry on trading, Paul could not be confident in their management.

Tip: Things break or don’t go to plan, it happens. As a manager or owner, it would be better to document this in your food safety management system. Then, you can state what you did to improve the issue, such as phone an emergency plumber, arrange an emergency rubbish pickup, cover staff sickness etc. Even though things haven’t gone well, Paul says he really values this in terms of demonstrating confidence in management.

Think of Safer Food, Better Business and other such systems, which provide fillable documents you can use as a diary for recording and evidencing instances where you’ve managed a crisis. This will show you’re doing your best to manage food safety issues.

11. Get ahead of the game: fill your temperature records in advance

Paul has been surprised, on a number of morning visits, to find the fridge and freezer temperature logs, and other such checks, filled in through to close of business and even the end of the week. It is a clear signal that you are not taking a fundamental part of the due diligence seriously.

Tip: To really demonstrate your management ability, keep a bottle of water in the warmest part of the fridge and test this with your thermometer, in addition to the reading given on the fridge itself. This shows the EHO you are actively trying to prepare for the worst case scenario.

12. Food hygiene doesn’t apply to ‘pop ups’

In Paul’s experience, ‘pop up’ food stalls seem to get caught up in the novelty of their trade and forget that they are still a business. The same hygiene rules and duty of care to your customers still apply and you are still subject to the potential of having a random food hygiene inspection.

food in pop up stall

Tip: According to Paul, it’s quite simple: “if you’re selling food, you need it all.” Make sure you have registered your stall, take copies of your food safety management documents and be prepared to show evidence of your compliance.

13. Thermometer? What thermometer..?

“Can’t find it.” “It’s broken.” “It’s in the manager’s office and it’s locked.” “It’s in Fahrenheit.” “The fridge tells you the temperature…”

Commercial fridges conveniently tell you the temperature. However, it is important not to rely on this completely as external dials cannot always be a true representation of the actual temperature.

Tip: When you check temperatures periodically throughout the day, do so with a manual probe or infrared thermometer to make sure you get the most accurate reading.

14. Wait for the manager to carry out safety checks

Your food premises should be set up so that all staff can carry out the necessary food safety checks. If on inspection day these haven’t been done due to absences, it does not bode well for the confidence in management criteria of the rating.

Paul has seen cases where the staff on duty have lied about the presence of senior managers. EHOs can, and often do, check Companies House to find out who the business’s name is under. Imagine Paul’s surprise when the Head Chef of a chosen eatery, who claimed not to know anything about the premises’ ownership, turned out to be the sole director, effectively running the business!

Tip: Just don’t lie! At the start of every shift make sure every staff member is aware of their duties for the day. Encourage them to sign on completion in order to always keep that trail of accountability.

15. Rush to provide the latest food trend

EHOs see restaurateurs, takeaway outlets and various other eateries immediately jumping onto the latest food trend, with no experience of how to execute it safely. Paul refers to ‘sous vide’ cooking, in which food is vacuum packed and cooked in a water bath at a low temperature, for longer than its usual time. The practice is common for meat, particularly less-than-thoroughly cooked burgers, as the desired result is extremely tender.

However, this is not a method of cooking you can replicate just by watching YouTube, says Paul. It is extremely risky, as there are specific temperatures and time periods at which meat must be cooked in order to avoid the serious risks associated with undercooking.

Similarly, many vacuum packers are bought second hand. If this has come from a butcher’s where it was previously used for raw meat, there is a cross contamination risk when used next for ready-to-eat food. This is an example of introducing a potential hazard and not controlling it, thus affecting the safe handling of food and confidence in management aspects of a rating.

Tip: There’s nothing wrong with adding variety to your menu and developing your business. Just be prepared to show the EHO evidence of your knowledge, training and safety compliance if you are utilising alternative cooking methods.

16. Don’t take your gloves off. Ever.

This is obviously a food safety necessity for avoiding contamination. However, it can be taken a little too literally. You can definitely remove the gloves for cigarette breaks and handling money.

It shouldn’t have to be said that gloves should be removed and replaced if you need to visit the bathroom…

Tip: Paul says that customers do like to see food handlers wearing gloves. Just remember to change them when you handle different or non-food items and always be wary of your potential to cross-contaminate!

17. Wait for the EHO to let you know they’re coming to inspect

You won’t be notified of an EHO inspection. This serves a key purpose: to make sure you are operating hygienically and safely at all times. So, telling the EHO that you’re unprepared because you weren’t aware they were coming is not a viable excuse. In fact, it is evidence that your business isn’t running inline with best practice and legislation.

restaurant manager assigns shift duties

Tip: Make sure you’re always prepared. You can use our Self-Inspection Checklist to periodically make sure you are performing well in all 3 areas of the rating criteria.

18. Impress the EHO with a 5 rating – true or false!

Paul has arrived at some questionable looking premises to find a green and black food hygiene sticker proudly displaying a 5 in the window. “It was the shiniest, cleanest looking thing in the building,” says Paul, “that in itself told me something was afoot.”

Even if you have just taken over a food business with a previous rating of 4 or 5, the local authority will give you an ‘awaiting inspection sticker’ and display this information online. Essentially, you have to re-register and gain a new rating under the current ownership.

Tip: The EHO will check to see if you have an existing rating, so there is really no point in lying. When you do achieve your rating of 5, we have plenty of suggestions for getting the word out to your customers.

19. Tell the EHO they’re wrong again… and again!

Any excuses for why your checks aren’t done, documents are missing, or things are broken are not going to get you anywhere. It is not the EHO’s fault that they came at a bad time. It is your responsibility, and public duty, to make sure that when you start trading you are ready to serve according to the law.

“We know the frozen food in the freezer isn’t soft because it’s just been delivered. It’s not good enough that you couldn’t get access to the bins because of traffic. Staff being away have nothing to do with it – we don’t want to hear excuses for every single item.”

Instead of providing justifications, Paul advises to simply accept the advice given, implement it and request a revisit.

Tip: Paul does recognise that EHOs are not immune to mistakes, which is why there is an appeals process in place. If you’re unsatisfied with the outcome of an inspection, contact your local authority and download a Request a Revisit form. In the meantime, you can also use a Right to Reply form to inform customers of the steps you have taken to improve your hygiene standards. This will then be published online alongside your rating.

20. Ignore the EHO’s suggestions

You’ve been through the process of having the inspection. Maybe the day didn’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped and you’ve requested a revisit. The EHO will be quite surprised if they arrive at your premises to find things are exactly the same as the previous inspection.

EHO sits with cafe owner to discuss safety documentation

There are two strands to improving an unsatisfactory rating: legal requirements and further recommendations. Failing to implement the legal requirements can result in cautions and formal notices. Similarly, ignoring any best practice suggestions or tips means confidence in management will plunge.

“We as EHOs will always look to inform, educate and coach in addition to giving a formal inspection. However, we do need to see an attitudinal change in order to have confidence that your rating should be improved.”

Tip: Learn from your mistakes. Take on board the EHO’s feedback and show evidence of the steps you have taken to improve from your previous inspection.

There is a common theme throughout this article and during Paul’s many unsatisfactory visits: a lack of confidence in the management aspect of the rating.

A crucial element of this criteria is indeed reflected by paperwork, however, not simply in the sense of a missing sheet here or there.

The paperwork provides documented evidence of your compliance, evidence you have justified your decisions and evidence you’ve made attempts to resolve crises where possible.

Having your systems documented will help you to keep on top of the other aspects of the rating: your food handling practices and premises upkeep. All 3 elements of the rating criteria are interdependent and, ultimately, are key to creating a good food safety culture, for which the whole kitchen brigade has a responsibility.

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