Food hygiene ratings shown to improve standards

New research conducted by PSI on behalf of the Food Standards Agency shows that food hygiene ratings can be effective in improving hygiene standards where there is broad uptake of the scheme and it is backed by regular inspections and clear labeling of ratings at food premises.

The comprehensive evaluation of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS), running in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Food Hygiene Information Scheme (FHIS), operating in Scotland, focused on a two-year period of operations between 2011 and 2013.

The evaluation studied the experiences of local authorities, food businesses and consumers, and assessed the impact of the schemes on improving hygiene standards at food premises and reducing food-borne illness in the population, the ultimate goal of the schemes.

A theory of change served as the conceptual framework for the evaluation. It was expected that better performing food premises would have a food hygiene rating or result on display to customers and that competition among food business operators would drive standards higher. Alongside this, it was anticipated that consumers would incorporate hygiene information into their food purchasing decisions, avoiding those establishments with lower standards, and thus incentivising business operators to improve their hygiene. Increased compliance with food hygiene standards would lead to a reduction in food-borne illness.

The evaluation found positive impacts on food hygiene standards for local authorities that were running the FHRS. Findings for the FHIS in Scotland were not statistically significant although impact estimates broadly followed the same trends as for the FHRS. The evidence suggests that, compared to the other countries, lower scheme engagement among Scottish food business operators and consumers can help explain the weaker findings for the FHIS, to date.

The FHRS effectively improved broad compliance (equivalent to a FHRS rating of 3 or above) among food premises by 2.0 percentage points in the first year of operations. By the end of the second year, the scheme increased the proportion of fully compliant food premises (equivalent to a FHRS rating of 5) by 3.3 percentage points. At the same time, the FHRS reduced the number of poorly compliant food premises (equivalent to a FHRS rating of 0 or 1) by 1.9 and 1.7 percentage points over the first two years of operations, respectively. These positive results align with international evidence on the introduction of food hygiene information schemes.

Due to serious data limitations it was not possible to derive reliable impact estimates testing the effect of the FHRS/FHIS on the incidence of food-borne illnesses.

UK-wide implementation of the schemes is on target. To maintain momentum, local authorities should continue to support food safety inspection teams with adequate resourcing and support.

Food business engagement with the schemes was found to go beyond commercial interests. Other motives like personal pride and avoiding the stigma of a poor rating/result could be used as selling points to encourage food hygiene improvements. The research identified a gap in knowledge about the role that business competition plays in driving up hygiene standards.

Limited public access to food hygiene information at the point of choice was found to be a weakness of the FHRS/FHIS. Making display mandatory at food business premises would help address this issue. Higher profile marketing initiatives at the national level may be needed to inform consumers where they can find the information and prompt them to seek it out. At present it is unknown the extent to which mandatory display and higher profile marketing would increase consumer use of the schemes.

A culture of food hygiene information use needs to be developed and promoted among food businesses and consumers. Tracking the FHRS ratings and FHIS inspection results of individual food premises will identify which types of businesses show changes/stability in compliance over time. This will help to tailor interventions and support, particularly for poor performing food premises. Consumer segmentation research would improve knowledge about where food hygiene information is sourced, who uses it and when. Marketing activities could build on knowledge about when hygiene information is more likely to be used.

To read more about the research and download the related reports, visit the project page.