The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently published the results of a survey that assessed the value of the national Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) and perspectives on potential changes to regulatory approach.

The survey sought to capture consumer views on potential changes to the regulatory approach through online discussion groups. Participants expressed varied levels of awareness of the FHRS, with those having more knowledge about the scheme reporting checking food safety and hygiene ratings before deciding where to buy food. Those with less awareness of the FHRS associated the scheme with the ratings stickers displayed by food businesses but did not tend to use the ratings when making decisions. They had limited understanding of how the ratings were decided, or what the ratings meant beyond the best and worst scores.

Regarding the value of the FHRS for consumers, the extent to which participants used and valued the FHRS varied. While participants generally acknowledged the value of the FHRS and FHRS ratings, and many used the scheme, other considerations were also mentioned by participants when choosing where to buy food. Participants also discussed the value offered by regular inspections. They reflected on ratings that were based on inspections that happened several years ago and expressed concern about these ratings potentially not reflecting current food safety practices.

Participants were also asked about six potential changes to the regulatory approach, which were introduced through scenarios that set out the potential change and what it might mean for specific businesses. The changes and participants’ respective opinions were as follows:

  1. The potential use of an independent audit for assurance: Participants were open to the idea of using third-party independent audits and internal audits, however, they called for FSA oversight to ensure inspectors carrying out independent audits were appropriately skilled and trained
  2. Changes to the method of inspection, including making use of remote assessments: Participants were strongly against remote inspections as an alternative to physical inspections, particularly for businesses that prepare fresh food
  3. Removing some lower risk businesses from the inspection regime: Most participants were worried that lower risk businesses might see this as “permission” for food hygiene standards to fall
  4. Reducing inspection for inherently high risk businesses with a consistently good track record of compliance: Many participants supported using a reduced inspection regime or remote inspections as an incentive to recognize compliant businesses and encourage them to maintain high standards.
  5. Using other FSA approved assurance schemes to reduce frequency of interventions: Participants recognized the benefits around reduced inspection costs and freeing up resources, however, some were concerned this could lead to a lack of clarity about accountability for issues between different stakeholders.
  6. Supermarkets and other large or multi-site businesses assessed as a whole business, rather than as individual stores: Views were mixed, with some participants feeling this change would reduce costs and enable a focus on other higher risk businesses, and others raising concerns about poorly performing premises benefitting from an overall rating that did not reflect their practices.