A council is facing serious questions following an E.coli outbreak which appears to have originated at a fish bar previously condemned for its poor hygiene.
A chip shop at the centre of a suspected E.coli outbreak was criticised for poor hygiene after a council inspection 12 months ago, it was revealed today.
A woman and a three-year-old girl remain seriously ill in hospital after eating a meal from the Llay Fish Bar in Llay, Wrexham, North Wales.
Wrexham Council published the finding of a hygiene inspection at the take away in August last year which rated it "zero stars" out of a maximum five.
The report said: "Poor Hygiene conditions found. Some major non-compliance with food legislation."
Why was this establishment not immediately closed to the public, one might ask. Why had there been no further inspection in the following year?
Valid questions, but possibly the wrong ones.
My question would be, why is it incumbent on the state, via local authorities, to be handling such matters at all?
One assumes the justification would be, as in other spheres, that government doesn't trust businesses to sufficiently make arrangements for such matters. Yet this case would tend to prove that local authorities are not guaranteed to be error-free themselves. Remember that this is just one case which has been ruthlessly exposed by a particularly nasty bacterium popping its ugly head up and saying hello. How many other outlets around the country are operating in a similar cavalier manner, despite having been inspected, without our being any the wiser?
Why not allow the industry to enforce itself? After all, the legislation is still there to be adhered to and can be mobilised in the event of egregious abuses, should they arise.
Instead of the local authority taking on such duties, they could be devolved to an approved set of private companies, who would tender their business model and implementation plans to a pre-determined standard to align with statutory hygiene levels. Food outlets wishing to be accredited by one of these companies would be charged a membership fee and, on successful inspection, be required to display a grading in a prominent position in their establishment.
It wouldn't be another cost to the business as business rates would be reduced to compensate. The reduction may not reflect the entire cost of the service as it was previously administered by the council as no doubt, the way it is recharged currently, council taxpayers are expected to pay their share too. But as private businesses tend to make efficiency savings more readily than local authorities, it's possible that the difference could be minimal if there is one at all. And if there is a marginal extra cost to the food outlet, they would pass this on via a small increase in their food costs. Their customers would obviously have to pay this, but they would have saved a small sum in their council tax anyway, and only those buying food from such places would pay the extra charge.
Why the change if the costs are merely shifting from public sector to private sector? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, the approved inspection/enforcement companies would be competing with one another for members and also working nationwide therefore bringing economies of scale into play. Local authorities have no such concerns to keep costs down. Although in competition, legal standards would still be required to be met, so any resultant cost-cutting would have to be made in areas other than the food safety aspect itself.
Secondly, much like the industry self-regulation of travel agencies and tour operators, should the scheme be successfully administered, a hefty sum could be set aside for paying compensation to customers who fall foul of poor restaurant hygiene. This would be recouped by an actuarial increase in membership fees to food outlets with a less impressive track record. Food businesses would obviously not want to pay a higher 'premium' so would make damn sure their procedures were up to scratch, ergo cleaner restaurant kitchens which is surely the entire point of the exercise. As far as I can see, there is little incentive for this at the moment.
Applying the arrangements above to the Welsh outbreak of E.coli, the fish bar concerned may well have taken hygiene more seriously if it meant their costs were increased by way of a punitive membership fee. If not, the enforcement/inspection company, in order to avoid paying compensation from their accumulated fund, would have closed them down immediately until their procedures were improved. The outbreak might never have occurred, but even if these failsafes ... err ... failed, the courts wouldn't be troubled with compo claims as it would be handled by the industry, and the state would only ever need to be involved if prosecuting for criminally negligent hygiene under health and safety laws.
As health guy in Mark Wadsworth's cabinet, I'd send that to committee. As he might say, what's not to like (though I'm sure someone will tell me)?