Exposed: the hygiene scandal on the high street

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Restaurants run by some of Britain's largest food chains are failing to meet basic legal hygiene standards, an investigation by The Independent has found.

A third of Yo! Sushi restaurants surveyed did not meet all the legal standards required of them, according to food safety ratings given by local councils. Twenty per cent of Pizza Hut outlets had similar problems while 18 of Pizza Express's 132 surveyed restaurants did not meet the standards.

Britain's foremost food expert, Professor Hugh Pennington, said the findings were disturbing.

Under the law, all restaurants are inspected every two years by environmental health officers and most hand out star ratings of between five and zero. Restaurants with no stars are "very poor" with a general failure to comply with legal requirements. One-star establishments have poor compliance while those with two stars need to make more effort to hit all the legal requirements – designed to stop the spread of bacteria that can cause gastro-intestinal diseases.

The Independent analysed the star rating of 1,270 outlets run by 10 of Britain's best-known restaurant chains. They include the likes of McDonald's, Burger King and KFC as well as more upmarket chains such as Pizza Express, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Wagamama. Separately we used the Freedom of Information act to obtain reports on the most unhygienic restaurants. All of the companies had at least one branch, and in some cases dozens, failing fully to comply with food safety legislation.

Yo! Sushi, the Japanese seafood chain, was the worst performer of the 10 chains, with eight of its 23 restaurants in our sample (two thirds of its 37 outlets) receiving two stars or less.

Almost one in five Pizza Hut outlets failed to score three stars, deemed as meeting all legal requirements. For Pizza Express, one in eight was found to have unsatisfactory problems.

Among the individual reports, an inspector who called at Yo! Sushi in Soho, central London, in October 2006 found dirty staff changing areas, failures in defrosting and cooking, dirty floors, mice droppings on a food shelf, slime on cutting boards and no records of staff training. "Staff understood the basics but were not attending to cleanliness," reported Westminster Council's inspector. The restaurant in Rupert Street was subsequently closed.

In January last year, Pizza Express in St Martin's Lane, central London, was found to have mice droppings under and behind the pizza oven, a dirty ice machine and dirty chopping boards.

At Pizza Hut in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, last September, dirt and grease were clogged in the broken flooring and the general standard of cleanliness was "poor". The chain was ordered to clean the walls, floors, wheels and under the equipment.

The problems were much less prevalent at chains such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Pret A Manger, which had good hygiene at 98 per cent of its shops.

Professor Pennington said: "Any restaurant scoring two stars [more effort required to meet all legal requirements] is unsafe. Lower scores indicate imminent danger. I would expect those with a score of zero to have been closed on the spot."

Steve Vaughan, a senior consultant at All Food Hygiene which trains food manufacturers around the world in hygiene, said the survey results were very surprising. "If I had a restaurant I wouldn't tolerate a low star rating. There is a risk of food poisoning. They need an action team to sort out the issues."

Launched at the start of Food Safety Week, The Independent's survey comes amid calls for the introduction of a national restaurant hygiene scheme. The Food Standards Agency has begun a GermWatch campaign to highlight the importance of food safety. According to the Health Protection Agency, about 4.5 million people in England and Wales suffer food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli every year.

In order to ensure food outlets follow hygiene rules, local authority health inspectors check the kitchens of every outlet serving food to the public at least every two years. Dozens of local authorities place summaries of their inspections on food hygiene websites.

Analysis of the scores by the Food Standards Agency shows that takeaway outlets are the worst for food safety, scoring an average of 2.4 stars out of five, followed by pubs on 2.7 and restaurants on 2.8. Hospitals and schools had the cleanest kitchens, scoring an average of four out of five.

The Independent's survey checked all the outlets on the two biggest "scores on the doors" websites for England and Wales, which amounted to inspections of 32 per cent of the 4,000 outlets operated by the 10 chains. They ranged from 3.3 stars to 4.2 stars per restaurant. Alison Vickers, the business development director of Yo! Sushi, said the problems identified by the worst inspection reports had since been rectified. The Rupert Street branch in Soho had since achieved a two-star rating. She added that environmental health officers wrongly believed that sushi rice could not be kept waiting to be served for more than two hours whereas, according to the chain's own scientists, it could be served safely for four hours.

Pizza Hut said its £17m refurbishment programme was improving its cleanliness. A spokesperson said: "We enforce strict hygiene standards across all of our restaurants and, with over 700 restaurants nationwide, the vast majority score highly within the 'scores on the doors' scheme."

Pizza Express said most of its restaurants scored three stars or more, adding: "In the event that one receives a poor visit, the team will immediately focus on addressing the situation and putting things right." It added the changes might not be reflected in the star rating until the next visit, which could be up to 18 months later.

Nando's said it was "ever vigilant" on hygiene matters and had branches that usually scored above average.

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said: "It is obviously important that restaurants and other food businesses get hygiene practices right, but people should also remember that food poisoning is just as much of a risk in the home."

* Check your local restaurant at scoresonthedoors.org.uk and eforms.yourlondon.gov.uk.

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