Councils reject new £2.5m food hygiene plan

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The Independent Online

Many local authorities are boycotting a new national hygiene system for restaurants and cafés, claiming it is too expensive to run and not tough enough.

Under the Food Standards Agency scheme launched today, thousands of outlets will be graded between 0 and 5 for cleanliness, with scores displayed online. The FSA hopes the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme will shame dirty eateries into raising their standards and cut the one million cases of food poisoning in the UK each year.

But when the scheme's website goes live today – three years after the FSA began the £2.5m project – it will show results from only 29 local authority partners... 15,013 of the 406,398 inspected food premises in the UK. The FSA says 167 English, Welsh and Northern Irish councils have committed to display their scores at www.food.gov.uk/ ratings by the middle of next year, a quarter of the 524 that could have participated.

Some 124 councils already display ratings for 149,067 outlets on a rival commercial website, www.scoreson thedoors.co.uk. Seventeen London boroughs are also keeping their own website. Both use a five-star rating system, which the FSA has dropped claiming it is misunderstood by the public. Under its new system, food premises will receive a higher rating than they did under the old system. This could mean that some places given three stars will receive a rating of four under the new system without improving their performance.

Local authorities which dislike that also say they will be obliged to provide free re-inspections for some firms rather than wait for the next scheduled report. Outlets will not be forced to display their ratings.

One environmental health officer, who has resisted joining the FSA plan, said: "Under the FSA scheme there's a requirement to offer re-inspection for free, which has a manpower implication. We're also concerned the star ratings don't align exactly."

The FSA said it hoped more councils would join its program once it was operational. Referring to the rival systems, an FSA spokeswoman said: "We are encouraging as many of them as possible to migrate to this national scheme so wherever anyone goes they will see the same thing."

Transparency Data, which runs the Scores on the Doors website, said: "This is common sense gone mad, when taxpayers' money in these times of austerity is being spent by a quango to compete with the existing national scheme which has been running for five years."

The FSA's chairman Lord Rooker, who will launch the scheme at Bluewater shopping centre in Kent today, said: "We shouldn't feel we are gambling with our health when we eat out."

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