Consuming Issues: Is your favourite restaurant dirty?

Marco Pierre White once likened the front of his star restaurant to heaven and its kitchen to hell. He was talking about the ordeal for staff (among them Gordon Ramsay), but there are other, unknown horrors happening behind the swing doors.

Food hygiene has been in the news recently, notably over the mass illness at Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck in Bray, the E.coli cases in Wrexham this summer, and the latest environmental health ratings of supermarkets.

Poor food hygiene isn't limited to headlines though. According to the Health Protection Agency (HPA), 4.5 million people in England and Wales get food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E.coli every year.

These bugs can be extremely nasty, resulting, as they did at Godstone Farm in Surrey (through the touching of farm animals infected with E.coli), in renal failure and the hospitalisation of 13 children.

So, how can you check whether your favourite restaurant is a health hazard, whether it has rats or the chefs any soap? This used to be confidential in all but the most appalling cases, where local authorities would prosecute, but since the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the shroud of secrecy over environmental health inspections has started to lift.

We can't see the whole picture yet, because two-thirds of councils don't publish summaries of their inspections. But a third do – and the results are a click of a mouse away.

Ninety-eight local authorities in England publish their ratings of food premises (five stars being best, no stars a disgrace) on the national "scoresonthedoors.org.uk" website. Of the 90,194 eateries listed, 20,353 – 23 per cent – have two stars or less. Of those, 2,344 had zero stars. Separately, 33 London boroughs publicise publish their five-star ratings at eforms.yourlondon.gov.uk.

Publication of these ratings raises standards because no food business wants customers to know it might be dodgy (I wouldn't knowingly eat anywhere with less than two stars). But the Food Standards Agency is planning to relax the judging, meaning far more premises will earn four or five stars without any improvement. Perhaps as a result of lobbying, the FSA is seeking to push through the weakest system, simply to get it accepted.

And it seems some of the big supermarkets don't wish to be covered by hygiene ratings at all. In a two-page letter to the FSA's then chair, Deirdre Hutton, in December, Asda's corporate affairs director, Paul Kelly, wrote: "There is no substantiation as to why Scores on the Doors should be extended to retail premises."

Readers of Tuesday's Independent will have seen that, in a new league table, one in 20 Tescos and one in 25 Asdas scored less than three stars, signifying they breached some, or many, aspects of food safety legislation.

According to the London scheme, a one-star rating shows a "poor level of compliance with food safety legislation – much more effort required". A zero rating shows "a general failure to comply with legal requirements. Little or no appreciation of food safety. Major effort required." In normal language, they are likely to be filthy.

If food businesses had to display their star rating, perhaps restaurateurs, takeaway owners and shops would take more care.

So, how did The Fat Duck and the Llay Fish Bar, which the National Public Health Service for Wales said was the "most likely source" of the E.coli outbreak that infected four people, fare?

The HPA said the source of the Fat Duck outbreak, which laid low 529 diners, was sewage-infected oysters (and therefore beyond the restaurant's control), but it did criticise the slow reporting of the incident and allowing sick staff to work.

Heston Blumenthal is widely considered to run a clean kitchen. Probably his place would have scored four or five stars, but, because Windsor and Maidenhead council does not publish its hygiene reports, we don't know.

In Wrexham, health officers gave the Llay Fish Bar no stars last August, a score published on the council's website. The fish bar has re-opened because the authorities could not prove it was responsible for the E.coli. If you had checked its score, would you have popped in for cod and chips? The ratings are there, online, on council websites, scoresonthedoors.org.uk and eforms.yourlondon.gov.uk.

Heroes & Villians

Hero: Channel 4

Without Channel 4's backing, The End of the Line probably would not have been made. The fishing docu-film showed how industrialised trawling has left some species on the brink of commercial extinction, with too few left to be worth catching. Its release has sparked a debate on overfishing that has resulted in retailers such as Pret A Manger changing how they source tuna. But one thing: couldn't the once-pioneering channel broadcast End of the Line on its main terrestrial channel, rather than, as planned, the digital ghetto More4?

Villain: French car-makers

The French make lovely food, but they don't make very good cars. At least that's what 77,000 car owners told Which? about the performance of their motors. In the magazine's annual survey, six of the least popular 10 cars were French, including four Renaults, a Peugeot and a Citroën. Bottom of the pile was the Renault Espace (1997-2003). The Mégane (1996-2003) was described as "a pile of rubbish" and the Laguna (2001-2007), pictured, as "an impulse buy... regretted ever since". One reader described the Espace as: "A fantastic car, if only it would work for longer than a month at a time." Ouch!

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