Conform or close, head of food agency tells dirty cafés

Restaurants with poor hygiene standards face rigorous repeat inspections

The new head of a Government agency has warned that food businesses which refuse to conform to a voluntary scheme on hygiene ratings will be closed down by repeated visits from health inspectors.

In candid comments to The Independent, Lord Rooker, chairman of the Food Standards Agency, said any pub, café, hotel, restaurant and takeaway not openly displaying its rating under the "scores on the doors" system faced weekly official visits.

Rebel firms would have to pay for environmental health inspections themselves, the former Labour minister added, warning they would "go out of business pretty damn quick".

Two-thirds of local authorities in England, 219, currently publish 0- to 5-star hygiene ratings on more than 100,000 outlets on websites available for public scrutiny, and the FSA has spent four years developing its own UK-wide scheme with the aim of reducing the 750,000 people hit by food poisoning every year.

In an interview to mark the first 10 years of the FSA – which he helped found as a minister in the former Ministry of Agriculture in 2000 – Lord Rooker said that all outlets would want to join a national scheme eventually accepted by council and industry bodies.

Asked why dirty premises would want to display low scores, he said: "When we get to that point, they will get inspected every week and charged for it. They will be out of business pretty damn quick, because the regulations will put them out [of business].

"In other words, they will be very high risk in the scale and they will be inspected to the extent that they might decide it's not worth the candle."

The peer shrugged off complaints from restaurateurs who would claim 'I'm being picked on'. "Yes, you are being picked on because we think you're more risky and therefore we're going to inspect you more often."

Lord Rooker added: "I've no apology to make for that. Once we get to the point where we've got a system that can be used by industry and they're not using it, then quite clearly, we would inspect them more often and with full cost recovery."

Environmental health officers and the hospital industry dismissed the comments as unworkable. Health inspections currently took place no more frequently than every six months, according to David Clapham, communication secretary for the Scores on the Doors National User Group.

"If you are having to go in more than every six months you should really be taking other action," Mr Clapham said.

He added: "We can't charge people at the moment."

John Dyson, technical director for the British Hospitality Association, pointed out that inspections were completely separate to the voluntary display of ratings. "High-risk businesses will be visited more frequently but it's not down to scores on the doors, it's down to other factors... I think he should talk to his chief executive and his own officials as soon as possible because it just isn't the situation."

Another figure involved with scores on the doors said: "The FSA do increasingly appear to be heavy-handed towards businesses."

In other comments, Lord Rooker said he hoped hoped pressure from retailers using the agency's traffic lights system would drive rebel manufacturers to abandon their opposition. The FSA's anti-salt campaign had saved 7,000 lives a year, he said, becoming the "best value for money" public health campaign in the past 60 years.

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