Commercial food businesses like restaurants, delicatessens and cafeterias are considered as a recurrent source for foodborne disease outbreaks. Common reasons for this phenomenon include: 1) contaminated equipment / cross-contamination; 2) food from unsafe sources; 3) improper holding times and temperatures; 4) inadequate cooking, and 5) poor personal hygiene.
In Hong Kong, licensed food premises are subject to regulatory control under the “Hygiene Manager and Hygiene Supervisor Scheme”. The scheme stipulates that each food establishment must appoint a certified hygiene manager and/or a hygiene supervisor. This is the first line of defense in preventing foodborne illness. However, this is clearly insufficient because restaurant associated food-borne illnesses still occur from time to time.
In United Kingdom, the second line of defense to combat restaurant-related outbreaks and improve hygiene standards is already adopted, known as “Food Hygiene Rating Scheme” (in England, Northern Ireland and Wales) or “Food Hygiene Information Scheme” (in Scotland).
The schemes are operated by the UK government, and a food hygiene rating will be given to a food business including restaurant to reflect her standard of food hygiene found on the date of inspection by the local authority. The rating gives the consumers an idea of what’s going on in the kitchen, or behind closed doors.
Consumers might see a sticker in the window or on the door of a restaurant, or a certificate on display, showing them the official inspection result for that business. The rating of a restaurant can also be checked on the internet. Consumers can use the information to switch to or choose a place with higher hygiene standards.
Elements to be Rated
During an inspection, the enforcement officer will check the elements possibly affecting food safety:
1. How hygienically the food is handled – how it is prepared, cooked, re-heated, cooled and stored.
2. The condition of the structure of the buildings – the cleanliness, layout, lighting, ventilation and other facilities.
3. How the business manages what she does to make sure food is safe and so that the enforcement officer can rest assured that standards will be maintained in the future.
Under the “Food Hygiene Rating Scheme”, the restaurant hygiene standards found at the time of inspection is rated on a scale from 0 to 5. The bottom of the scale is ‘0’ i.e. urgent improvement is required. In contrast, the top of the scale is ‘5’ i.e. the hygiene standards are very good.
Under the “Food Hygiene Information Scheme”, three types of ratings are available:
a) “Eat Safe” - hygiene standards of a business is better than those required by law.
b) “Pass” – a business has achieved an acceptable level of compliance with the requirements of food hygiene law.
c) “Improvement required” – a business has not achieved an acceptable level of compliance with the requirements of food hygiene law.
In Hong Kong, restaurant inspection scores / comments given by enforcement officers are neither accessible to the public nor posted at restaurants. It is recommended to provide more information about the restaurant hygiene rating to consumers, so that they can make informed decisions about where to eat safely, and to drive up hygiene standards of local caterers. In this connection, government should rank all local food businesses and publicly announce their hygiene scores.
On the other hand, private food hygiene certification schemes have already been developed by few independent third-parties, and can indicate food hygiene rating objectively. Local restaurants reaching high food safety standards are highly recommended to seek for certification and display the hygiene ratings they get. This helps to differentiate themselves from other less qualified competitors, and increases their incentives for continual improvement in food hygiene.