Supermarkets resist hygiene ratings plan

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The Independent Online

The UK's three biggest grocers have lambasted the Food Standards Agency's controversial proposals for supermarkets to be covered by a UK-wide rating system measuring food hygiene standards.

The FSA has proposed that its Scores on the Doors scheme – which is carried out by local authorities and already covers some of the UK's best-known restaurant and sandwich chains – is extended to supermarkets.

The Government is proposing that retailers' food hygiene rating, which is currently a sliding scale of five stars, would be posted on the FSA's website.

The initiative is likely to send shivers down the spine of food retailers, which live in fear of TV exposés of poor hygiene or customers getting food poisoning. They are also unlikely to welcome the additional regulatory burden.

Sainsbury's, Asda and Tesco have described the proposed initiative as "confusing", adding that it is subjective and riddled with inconsistencies.

A Sainsbury's spokeswoman said: "We have real concerns about the FSA's proposals. We of course support anything that improves food safety and leads to better and more accurate information being given to consumers. However, we are concerned about the confusion surrounding this scheme and the inconsistency involved in marking."

Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King has publicly expressed his concern about Scores on the Doors. Tesco declined to comment, but a source close to the retail giant agreed with the view of rivals Asda and Sainsbury's.

On its website, the FSA says: "Scores on the Doors schemes are designed to provide consumers with information about standards of hygiene in food businesses and to empower them to make informed choices."

An Asda spokeswoman said: "We would like one simple, clear system for all local authorities because what is being proposed is confusing."

In particular, food retailers are concerned about a lack of standardisation, leaving them open to subjective tests and measurements by individual local authorities. For instance, the grocers worry that a customer may see that their local store in the South has only three stars, while a less hygienic store in the North could have a higher rating.

A British Retail Consortium spokesman said it would await the end of the consultation period, 15 August, before deciding how to respond. But he said: "We do have concerns over the inconsistency of the overall application process, when the person makes the inspection, and whether it is appropriate for food retailers."

Industry sources have speculated that the BRC or individual grocers may consider mounting a legal challenge if the FSA pushes ahead with the proposals.

Food retailers are likely to be concerned at the public naming and shaming of restaurants that Scores on the Doors is already delivering and that a lower than desired rating would drive customers away from their stores.

On 14 June, this paper reported that some Yo!Sushi, Pizza Hut and Pizza Express outlets did not meet basic legal hygiene standards. All these restaurants said they were always quick to rectify lower than desired standards at any outlets.

In its consultation published at the end of last month, the FSA said: "We propose that the UK-wide scheme includes all businesses supplying food directly to consumers (for example, cafés, bars, restaurants take-aways, supermarkets and other retailers)."

The government body, which says there is "strong support" for such a scheme", is proposing one of two scoring options for the scheme: a "three-star, plus fail" system and a "pass/improvement required" system, based on one being piloted in Scotland.

There are currently a large number of different Scores on the Doors schemes operating.