Does The Ritz have dirty kitchens or Claridge's mice? Soon diners will be able to find out. From the end of this year, cleanliness ratings for thousands of eateries from the local café to the grandest Michelin-starred restaurant will be revealed online - with potentially embarrassing results.
In a victory for freedom of information campaigners, the Food Standards Agency has persuaded 44 local authorities to publish summaries of visits made by environmental health officers to restaurants, cafés, pubs and other food outlets.
All 33 London authorities, which cover top restaurants including The Savoy, Le Gavroche and Nobu, have agreed to take part, along with Hull, Coventry, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Stoke. Five councils in Scotland, including Edinburgh and Aberdeen, are also participating.
Ratings will appear on the councils' websites but restaurateurs will also be asked to display them on their premises. All food outlets may be forced to display the so-called "scores on the doors".
Some of the top names charging up to £120 for a meal for two have been found wanting. Inspections for Westminster council disclosed to The Independent this year revealed problems at several of London's top restaurants. At Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, an inspector in September last year found there was a risk of contamination because a washing-up sink was too close to a food preparation area and chefs were seen wiping their hands on dirty cloths. An inspection in 2004 at The Ivy found that hand-washing was "infrequent" and there were signs of mice infestation. The Ritz received a good report.
Information on inspection reports is patchy. Some local authorities such as Norwich and Camden already publish inspections online but most people wanting to check the hygiene of their local café or kebab house have to rely on requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
Under the new plan, the Food Standards Agency is funding three pilot projects, in London, the Midlands and Scotland, which could become the basis of a new national scheme. They will begin in January and seek to determine the form of the ratings - for example, whether they should be based on a star system or include comments from inspectors.
Although food poisoning is declining, about 80,000 people are believed to be struck down every year - half in restaurants and the rest in schools, hospitals and care institutions - and health professionals are keen to keep up the pressure on caterers.
Jenny Morris, policy officer at the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health, said: "We are delighted consumers will be able to exercise choice about where they eat, based not only on the menu but also on how conscientious the restaurants are in maintaining hygiene.
"A study of food-borne disease hospitalisations following the introduction of a grading system in Los Angeles County in 1998 suggested that such systems can lead to a reduction in cases of food-borne illness." In some parts of the US, premises have to display a scorecard showing their hygiene inspection rating.
Maurice Frankel, head of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the move was evidence of a new culture of openness. "It helps to inform consumers about standards and it puts pressure on the restaurants to make good any deficiencies the inspectors have detected."
THE IVY London
Inspection: Summer 2004
Problems: Worn and scored chopping boards, infrequent hand-washing, fruit flies under dishwasher and, worst of all, "low-level mice activity".
GORDON RAMSAY London
Inspection: March 2005
Problems: Breaches of food safety law, including broken tiles, split door seals, poor electrical safety and storage of cleaning materials next to food. Staff ordered to "thoroughly clean" the freezer.
CITY SPICE TAKEAWAY Norwich
Inspection: November 2005
Problems: Large pans of cooked food on floor, washing up bowl used for keeping rice embedded with dirt, chemical cleaner placed on shelf above food, filthy plate rack and dirty freezers.
GOLDEN DRAGON Chinatown, London
Inspection: August 2005
Problems: Meat gnawed by mice, cockroach found on meat slicer, black mould on kitchen floors, doors, walls and pipes and flaking paint falling onto food.Reuse content