Tell us about the mould and rats

New Statesman: Observations
Monday 22nd November 2004

Observations on food by Heather Brooke

As a curry often follows a night on the beers, so a dodgy tummy often follows the next morning. Nobody knows precisely how many people suffer from food poisoning in Britain or which restaurants, takeaways and shops are the likely culprits; a secretive inspection regime leaves the public in complete ignorance about the quality of the places where they eat and shop.

When facts do come out, they emerge long after the event and in extreme circumstances, such as in the case of the £25,000 fine handed out to Tesco by Wimbledon magistrates earlier this month, for repeated instances of mice infestation and mouldy food in a local store. Though Tesco said the store had been undergoing a major refit “which led to some isolated problems”, a local council spokeswoman said the authority “was aware of a long history of problems at the store”.

But if the inspectors knew about those problems, the customers – who actually ate the food – did not. Though inspectors can shut down a business if they find evidence of a major public health hazard, most “minor” violations are kept hidden from the public.

This secrecy would not be tolerated in many other countries such as Denmark and America. I have just browsed the San Francisco Department of Public Health website and now know more about the hygiene of restaurants and food businesses 5,000 miles away than I do about those outside my own front door. The Alcatraz Market on 757 Beach Street, for example, was cited on 27 April this year for contaminated food, improper holding temperature (cold) and improper manual sanitising. The market quickly remedied these problems and got a clean bill of health at a follow-up inspection in June, and further full marks in September.

So what do British businesses think of such an idea? “We are opposed in principle and in detail,” said Miles Quest, communications director at the British Hospitality Association. But what the association says it most objects to is the arbitrary way that councils inspect food businesses. “We would far prefer inspections to be more consistent and tougher,” added Quest.

Making inspections public is exactly the way to do this. It would reveal inconsistencies. More importantly, it would highlight the frequency (or infrequency) of inspections. Some restaurants, it is said, are visited only once a decade.

Greenwich council already plans to issue food hygiene certificates to restaurants that pass inspections. These will be posted and searchable on the council’s website. But more needs to be done and once the Freedom of Information Act and new Environmental Information Regulations come into force in January, it will be difficult for councils to deny the public this vital information.

Don’t weep for the end of dodgy curry and kebab establishments. Most likely there will always be a place for them in the small hours, when good judgement and caution are thrown to the winds – but at least we’ll have the information to know what we’re doing.

Heather Brooke is the author of Your Right to Know (Pluto Press)

This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.


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