Set up to give the public information about hygiene levels in restaurants and food shops, including bakeries and cafés, Scores on the Doors rates the food safety of individual businesses and posts the score on the internet for the public to browse. Companies are also encouraged to voluntarily display their score on the premises (hence the name).
The scheme has developed in piecemeal fashion, so councils currently rate businesses in different ways - some score them out of three or five stars, others use smiley faces or give a 'pass' or 'improvement required' rating. Some councils do not operate a scheme at all.
To standardise the situation, the FSA approved a single six-tier scheme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland just before Christmas. This will mean a business can score between zero and five (which will probably be represented with star symbols), with five being the top mark. Scotland will continue to use a two-tier 'pass' or 'improvement required' system.
== Revealed on the internet ==
It might sound complicated, but the bottom line for bakery retailers is that if their hygiene levels are not already available for the public to see on the internet, they will be soon. While display of scores on the premises will remain voluntary, most food safety experts think that compulsory display is only a matter of time. Indeed, last year, London councils tried to pass a law making display mandatory, which has been overturned for the time being.
Trade associations have slammed the Scores on the Doors system on several counts. Chief among these is that a six-tier scheme could give consumers a false impression of a food business. Two stars, for example, translate as 'broadly compliant', but most consumers would assume that there was something wrong with a business that had only scored two out of five.
The other big criticism is that a six-tiered system gives more scope for inconsistent interpretations from one Environmental Health Officer (EHO) to another. EHOs are meant to follow set criteria when assessing businesses, but there is evidence that their interpretations can vary dramatically. In Westminster 45% of businesses have been given two stars or less, yet in nearby Camden it is just 27%.
Chris Freeman, owner of Dunn's Bakery in Crouch End, is concerned about consistency between EHOs. His business received one star when it was inspected in 2007. But after complaining that this was inaccurate, it was upgraded to two stars. He was then inspected again a year later and received four stars. "I made very few changes to the way I manage food safety between inspections, but ended up with completely different scores. I know EHOs have tried to improve consistency, but inspections are, by their nature, subjective," he says.
At the moment, businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that feel their score is inaccurate generally do not have a right to re-inspection, although they can dispute an EHO's findings, as Freeman did. In Scotland, however, all businesses can be re-inspected, free of charge, if they receive an 'improvement required' rating.
The good news is that under the FSA's proposals for a single scheme, provision for re-inspection is provided, although the business will have to pay for it.
== More explanation needed ==
At Thomson's Bakery in Newcastle, co-owner Jan Thomson is proud of the company's four-star rating and displays it in the shop, but she also has concerns about the scheme. "It seems strange that a newspaper shop selling pre-packed sandwiches is scored in the same way as a bakery that makes all its products from scratch on-site. The scheme doesn't compare like for like and I think that's unfair," she says. "More needs to be done to explain to people what the scores mean. People might think that there is something wrong with a business with two or three stars, when actually it is completely safe."
It's not just craft bakers who feel uneasy about Scores on the Doors. Asda and Sainsbury's have both criticised the scheme in the past for being confusing ? a view echoed by the British Retail Consortium. A spokesman says: "The Scores on the Doors proposals are overly bureaucratic and will do nothing to raise standards. The scores will be confusing for customers who don't know what they mean. Under the FSA's proposed six-tier scheme, locations meeting all the legal requirements won't necessarily receive the top score, which could undermine their reputation unfairly."
A specific issue for the big retailers is that some councils rate supermarkets by individual department, so that a single store could have different scores for its in-store bakery, butchery counter and deli. "Separate scores for individual parts of the premises will be even more confusing, especially if shoppers see the lowest score and assume it relates to the whole business," says the BRC spokesman.
The FSA's steering committee on Scores on the Doors, now being set up, is due to consider the issue as part of its wider discussions. It hopes to finalise the details of a single national scheme later this year, although it could be years before every local authority adopts it.
Bakers who have not properly got to grips with the latest food safety regulations need to do something about it now, to ensure they get a good score. The National Association of Master Bakers is helping its members with a series of workshops run by consultancy firm Shieldyourself. Sarah Delaney, the company's head of compliance, says that bakers tend to fall down in two or three key areas of food safety. These include operating in old buildings across several rooms and floors, which are difficult to clean, and the fact that they make such a wide range of products. "Bakeries have quite a high risk of cross contamination, because they make everything from pork pies with raw meat to fresh cream cakes," she says. Under regulations introduced in 2006, all food businesses must also have a documented food safety management system, based on HACCP principles. Without one, you will almost certainly end up with a low score on your door.
And that's enough to get anyone hot under the collar.
=== What the stars mean ===
Excellent: Very high standards of food safety management. Fully compliant with food safety legislation
Very good: Good food safety management. High standard of compliance with food safety legislation
Good: Good level of legal compliance. Some more effort might be required
Broadly compliant: Broadly compliant with food safety legislation. More effort required to meet all legal requirements
Poor: Poor level of compliance with food safety legislation - much more effort required
No stars: Very poor: A general failure to comply with legal requirements. Little or no appreciation of food safety. Major effort required
=== Top tips for achieving 5 Stars ===
1. Make sure your Food Safety Management System is available for inspection at all times
2. Accompany the EHO on their inspection. It helps to be proactive in explaining your approach to food safety
3. Ensure food handlers maintain a high standard of personal hygiene. The EHO's first port of call will be the bakery or café's wash hand basin. They will check for hot water, soap and a means of hand drying
4. Ensure the structure of the bakery is maintained. An old bakery should not score badly under the scheme providing it is well maintained
5. Ensure staff training records are available for inspection. To achieve a top score, all staff should be trained to an appropriate level or be instructed and supervised where appropriate.
Source: Kent Hygiene Solutions www.kenthygiene.co.uk