Tuesday 25 February 2014

Food hygiene certificates… when the chips are down, do they really matter?

Readers from the UK (which is exactly 25% of you) will, I’m sure, recognise the image above of a food hygiene certificate; introduced by the Food Standards Agency in the last few years. This scoring system is designed to help the public to make informed decisions about where to eat based upon hygiene and cleanliness, as well as the normal quality and service. On paper this is a good idea, forcing certain restaurants to raise their game because this information is now in the public domain and easily accessible on-line.

In my local newspaper a few weeks ago there was a list printed, detailing six take-away restaurants that had failed to score a single point out of five, all had a zero rating. This list was no great surprise, as I was already familiar with a few of these and don’t eat there (take-away or restaurant) because I have visited once and decided not to repeat the experience. This tends to be for two reasons. In the case of a take-away it is because the food has made one of the family (at best) feel ropey or (at worst) made somebody actually sick. For a restaurant the ‘tell’ that I employ is the state of the toilets… if these aren’t clean, I assume that the kitchen won’t be much better; although a restaurant can also have a double-whammy, i.e. somebody was ropey and/or sick and the toilets were disgusting. Reading the article, I was somewhat shocked… my favourite fish & chip shop was listed as a zero rating establishment.

“Well, we can’t eat there again” said Mrs. Stokes, and I instantly agreed with her. I know a few people who religiously look at the food hygiene score before every meal out or before every take-away, which I find a little pointless and have sometimes mocked. However, a zero rating sounds serious, so maybe they were right to check after all. I went on-line and started checking my other favourite places (all scored 4 or 5, incidentally) and then I stopped myself and thought about it… I decided that it doesn’t matter really, depending on what you eat. One of my favourite Chinese restaurants in London was closed down at some point due to a lack of hygiene (and an abundance of rats) but I still go there regularly, in fact I wrote about it a few months ago. And fish & chips, do I really need to worry about that? I typically order the same thing…

Cod, chips and a pickled egg on the side.

The fish and the chips are cooked in a deep fat fryer, so I really don’t think that anything dangerous could survive that intense heat… and if it does I deserve to get whatever ailment it carries. And pickled eggs are surrounded by vinegar their whole lives, another substance in which nothing is likely to survive. I'm going to give the buttered bread and HP Fruity Sauce from home a clean bill of health.

So, there might be a dirty floor (there definitely is) and the work surfaces might benefit from a more frequent clean (again, they definitely could do) but none of this affects my favourite Friday night dinner from my favourite local chippie so I’m not going to stop. I visited for the first time since the newspaper article at the weekend and ordered the usual, giving the server that knowing “I know this place is filthy but the food is great” look. I stopped short of a wink, but I think he got the message!