From Rogue Restaurants to Dirty Homes: What Can We Learn?

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Dr Lisa Ackerley is an Environmental Health Practitioner (EHP) and Managing Director of Hygiene Audit Systems. Having recently been involved in BBC1 series Rogue Restaurants and an International Home Hygiene study, Lisa provides her thoughts on whether it is an unhygienic restaurant or your own home that could cause illness

Appearing on TV as a commentator on dirty restaurants and an expert in food safety was an exciting undertaking. The programme's popularity (it overtook The Bill's viewing figures) showed that the public were fascinated to see what goes on behind the scenes, but of course as an Environmental Health Practitioner I am no stranger to kitchens. However, what was particularly interesting was getting to see what happens in a kitchen when no one is looking. As an enforcement officer or auditor, you never get such an honest view of a kitchen. I have seen some things in my time, but never someone taking a swig out of a bottle to check whether the contents are OK or reserving food that has been dropped on the floor. Similarly, I have never seen the kitchen sink being used to clean feet, noses and ears prior to the call to prayer.

The programme showed food businesses that had allowed food safety to get out of control. Often, the footage was so shocking it spoke for itself, but I needed to explain what was and was not a risk. As a professional, I have a responsibility to provide a balanced view point and not to sensationalize things. An isolated incident or an example of poor practice will not in itself necessarily cause someone to become ill from eating out. It is the classic accumulation of lots of bad practices that all too often leads to food poisoning and/or an enforcement officer taking action. Consistent throughout the programme was the fact that many of the solutions to poor hygiene were actually very easy and not too expensive. Labelling food to assist with stock rotation, proper storage that will not cause cross-contamination, washing hands, basic cleaning and removal of clutter - all of these cost very little.

While some may say that secretly filming a kitchen is a little underhand, the reality is that the public can now gain an insight into the hygiene standards of a commercial kitchen anyway, through 'Scores on the Doors' schemes. At the moment, not all local authorities run such a scheme but those that do will issue a 'score', based on their hygiene inspection findings. This score will be published on a website for consumers to see. Businesses are also given the opportunity to voluntarily display a certificate indicating their score. The primary purpose of these schemes is to empower consumers so that they make more informed choices about the places from which they purchase food. The Food Standards Agency is planning to introduce a national scheme so that consumers across the UK can obtain information on businesses in their areas. 'Scores on the Doors' schemes may make a considerable impact on hygiene standards as public awareness increases and people start to vote with their feet. We will have to wait to see if hygiene standards do improve - and, in turn, food poisoning statistics decline. Certainly the feedback I have had following the TV series is that customers will definitely be keen to investigate scores, which means that businesses with good scores will have a commercial advantage over others.

It is estimated that each year as many as 5.5 million people in the UK could suffer from food-borne illnesses. What we must not be fooled into thinking is that all of these are caused by rogue restaurants. Given the right circumstances, we are very able to poison ourselves and our families in our own homes.

Earlier this year I was commissioned by the Hygiene Council to undertake a study looking at home hygiene across the globe. The results for the UK were really quite shocking. The home swabbing study was carried out in seven different countries: UK, USA, Germany, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and India. …