Scores on Doors too clear for UK restaurant grading schemes

Only a Lord could get away with a report titled, Common Sense Common Safety.

It ain’t common sense if it hasn’t been thought of.

The report, published today in the U.K. by Lord Young, the Prime Minister’s adviser on health and safety law and practice, puts forward a series of policies for improving the perception of health and safety, to ensure it is taken seriously by employers and the general public, while ensuring the burden on small business is as insignificant as possible.

Wouldn’t it be better to improve health and safety, and then the perception would be improved – if there was actual data to back up the claims of improved health and safety?

The report is written in a snooty tone that apparently only the British can achieve, and was deliberated in the context of the compensation culture – those vulgar lawyers looking for recompense for slighted victims.

Prime Minister David Cameron said,

“A damaging compensation culture has arisen, as if people can absolve themselves from any personal responsibility for their own actions, with the spectre of lawyers only too willing to pounce with a claim for damages on the slightest pretext.

“We simply cannot go on like this. That’s why I asked Lord Young to do this review and put some common sense back into health and safety. And that’s exactly what he has done.”

The U.K. Food Standards Agency was quick to say the Lord backed their restaurant inspection disclosure scheme.

Under the voluntary Food Hygiene Rating Scheme, each business is given a hygiene rating (from 0-5) when it is inspected by a food safety officer from the business’s local authority. The hygiene rating shows how closely the business is meeting the requirements of food hygiene law.

I was never sure about the 0-5 rating – is 5 good or bad – whereas a letter grading has clearer meaning. The actual report contains some clues:

The good Lord says that local authority participation in the Food Standards Agency’s Food Hygiene Rating Scheme be made mandatory, and that usage of the scheme by consumers by harnessing the power and influence of local and national media.

He also says the voluntary display of ratings should be reviewed after 12 months and, if necessary, make display compulsory – particularly for those businesses that fail to achieve a ‘generally satisfactory’ rating.

“I welcome the FSA’s decision to drop the unfortunate title ‘scores on the doors’, which has been used in the past for this initiative, and its decision to drop the use of stars, which have a connotation of cost and service. I am pleased that they have decided instead to use a simple numerical scale with appropriate descriptors. These decisions were based on the results of independent research with consumers and this is what they found to be clearest and easiest to use.”

Scores on doors may be too direct for the Lord; I hope the Aussies keep using it. And I look forward to the 0-5 studies being published in a peer-reviewed journal so mere mortals can review the research.

The good Lord also cites the Los Angeles example of restaurant inspection disclosure – they use letter grades – and inflates an already dubious estimate by stating there was a 20 per cent drop in the number of people being admitted to hospital for food related illnesses after the introduction of the letter grades.

Restaurant inspection is a snapshot in time and disclosure is no panacea. It can boost the overall culture of food safety, hold operators accountable, and is a way of marketing food safety so that consumers can choose.