Tuesday 4 August 2009

Abolish Council Hygiene Inspections

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)?


Anonymous said...

The obvious failure mode is that incumbent food service providers use their regulatory position to raise a barrier of entry to new businesses.

But overall it looks plausible.

BritBloke said...

Pretty much my thoughts on how it should work.

If people then want to take a risk on a dodgy kebab for a lower cost, then that's their call.

Anonymous said...

Nope, Matt, that's how it works now. I think what DP is suggesting is that if you want a poisonous doner, then you will have to pay more for it. Side order of micro-organisms comes extra, I'm afraid.

Dick Puddlecote said...

James: Agreed, but they would have earned that right by following correct procedures. New entrants would be competing with the worst offenders and if their initial inspection showed they had a workable, comprehensive hygiene system in place, their membership would be set at a low level. This would naturally weed out poor practices by way of the market.

Matt: You're jumping ahead of me a touch. If the scheme was voluntary to food suppliers, that would be the case as customers could indeed take their chances at their own risk, but it would take a few years of the system to be widely recognised and would also require an element of personal responsibility. And there lies the problem, I think we're too far down the road for that.

Joe Public said...

All Inspection Reports should be HAVE to be prominently displayed on the entrance door(s) of eateries.

Let's not forget that one of the reasons for the (early) success of McD's was their "on-view" preparation & cooking.

manwiddicombe said...

As the owner of a food business can I throw a few mixed comments into the arena?

1) EHO visits are as random as you like. Each individual EHO has their own pet peeves (for want of a better expression) and if you are visited by two different EHOs, one after the other without them being aware of the double visit, you will get two separate lists of items that need attention. My lists usually comprise of two or three items, none serious (in case you were curious).

2) Most competent business owners and managers will leave two or three things that are easy to correct, easily discoverable, so that an EHO will find them and be happy that they are able to prove their effectiveness.

3) An EHO will set the revisit time based on the conditions in the premises when they visit. This can be 1 week, 1 month, 6 months, 12 months, 18 months or 24 months depending on the score the business attains. I'm on an 18 month revisit schedule (if I was in another sector of the food industry I would be on a 24 month revisit schedule). If the shop got a zero star rating it should have been revisited before 12 months, more likely 1 month or 6 months to check on the progress and impose penalties if no progress was made.

4) Moving this check from the EHO to a private company will not have a positive impact, if anything I think that it would do the reverse unless the private company has the power to close you down if you fail the hygiene standards. To avoid being closed down or paying a higher price you just don't sign up to the scheme whereas with the current setup you have the fear of an officious civil servant hanging over you.

5) With multiple agencies policing hygiene there will be different standards applied by each company. This might cause confusion to customers but also might have businesses switching to a body that is renowned for having more lenient inspectors. Not really a huge change from the current muddled situation.

6) How many fish and chip servings are there each year, and how many cause people to be seriously ill?

Most of those made sense as I typed them .. .. ..

Dick Puddlecote said...

Thanks for that Captain FF, very illuminating.

On point 4) the scheme would be mandatory, food outlets would have to be a member of one of the approved bodies, the difference to now would be that they wouldn't be beholden to just the one they are landed with. Each inspection/enforcement business would have power to close a business for non-adherence (not non-compliance as I hate that term).

On point 5) all agencies (good word) may have differing standards to sell themselves, but they would all have to adhere to a statutory minimum which corresponds to up-to-date legislation. I do understand the idea of perceived leniency of differing inspectors though.

on 6) exactly. Which is why, in an ideal world, it would be voluntary so those who were willing to take the risk, could do. (ie Those who were worried would go for accredited premises, those who weren't would go cheap but take the consequences on the chin if their gut exploded)

Unfortunately, in this blame-everyone-but-me age, our public aren't ready for that, nor does it appear that they ever will be.

The Filthy Engineer said...

Food for thought.

Should not the local EHO be prosecuted for gross dereliction of duty. They enforce the standards. Surely they are the ones that have failed?

Can we bring back hanging. Please.

manwiddicombe said...

Thanks for the reply DP.

To continue using the same reference numbers .. .. ..

4) In your model who would regulate the regulators to ensure the quality of the inspections?

I agree that the ability to choose one agency over another would probably be a good thing unless .. ..

5) What do you think the chances are that the system would become focussed on causing businesses to fail inspections rather than trying to improve the general standard on hygiene? I use the current "parking enforcement operative" uproar as an example - pressure is put on ticket wardens to issue a set number of tickets each hour / day to cover their wages - so if a similar pressure was applied to commercially driven EHO replacements then businesses could be failed for the financial gain of the inspecting agency. Sure if too many businesses are closed down / charged a premium then the inspectorate will lose its client base but can you see a solution to the conflict of interest?

Itsnotmyfault culture .. .. I agree!!

Dick Puddlecote said...

Captain FF:

Re 4) I expect it would be regulated by a small overseeing agency who would audit occasionally to make sure the terms of the tendered processes were being adhered to.

5) True. This could be a problem, but there would always have to be a means of redress for outlets who feel hard done by, either through a council of members, or tacked onto the duties of an ombudsman service for a related industry.

Mark Wadsworth said...

DP, that is an excellent plan, I was thinking along similar lines.

@ JB, restaurants would be free to operate without the hallmark awarded by XYZ self-regulatory body. There's no barrier to entry as such.

@ Joe Public, another good point. Either the certificate (bearing a big fat zero our of five) is publicly displayed or customers are allowed to walk through the kitchens and have a look for themselves.

@ Captain FF, yes there is a risk to your point 5, but word will soon get around that a 5/5 mark from self-regulatory body ABC is only worth as much as a 3/5 from body XYZ, so it will all even out.

To your point 6, the answer is "a lot" and "not many" respectively. Whether that is because state inspectors are better than we think, caterers far more considerate than we think or the human stomach is far more robust than we think is an unknown, of course.

@ TFE, in this case yes. But the same principle would apply to a self-regulatory body that collected the payments for the certification without actually carrying out inspections.

In summary, big chains like McDonalds (OK, they're mostly franchises) don't need public health inspectors as their reputation depends on not poisoning people. I am sure that McD's head office would shut down any outlet that were playing fast and loose. So it's just a question of applying the same free-market rules to smaller operators.