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Encouraging Better Hygiene Standards in Restaurants

Rodents and restaurant hygiene

During a recent conversation with the owners of a very successful restaurant chain in the South-East of England, it became clear they were disappointed one of our reports had been cited by the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) as a reason for downgrading their hygiene rating in one restaurant from a four to a two.

Now this raises an interesting issue – if the EHO has used our report as a reason for downgrading our client, and I have no reason to doubt them, then it seems as if evidence of a mouse problem being identified and rectified is being seen as negative. The report in question clearly identifies the mouse problem and then stipulates the responses we took to clear the problem and the different actions the owners needed to take to keep the restaurant clear in future. It therefore seems extraordinary to me that, if we are doing our job correctly and the restaurant is responding, this should result in a downgrading. In fact, such proof would seem to me to be demonstrative of due diligence and clear evidence that the restaurant takes health and hygiene seriously.

Are we seriously suggesting that every restaurant with a 5-star rating has never had a problem with mice? I think it is far safer to assume all restaurants have the potential to suffer from this issue and what the EHO really needs to see is evidence that the correct responses are being taken.

In our case, we have checked and our recommendations are being enforced – as we would expect from these operators. Obviously, we can’t comment on other aspects of hygiene but it is clear there was a focus on the pest control report being seen as evidence of a negative event by the EHO.

The problem with the EHO using pest control reports is, for something like a mouse problem, especially in the cold and wet winter months, they represent a snapshot of time in the past – there was a problem, a professional was called in, the problem has gone away, new procedures have been put into place and the problem has not reoccurred. The hygiene rating must surely look to the future and be a guide to what customers can expect. If we take this to an illogical extreme, then restaurants that take hygiene control seriously and have employed professional pest control services, but have been unlucky and had evidence of mouse activity recorded in a professional report, may be the ones with lower ratings. At the same time, restaurants with high grades may just have been lucky and not had their mouse problems identified because they don’t employ expert help.

Obviously, I’m not really suggesting all 5-star hygiene rated restaurants are just lucky and 2-star restaurants are just unlucky. My point is, there needs to be a level of consistency and thought behind the decision making. Our client was told the report resulted in a downgrading but, the very same report, could also be taken as evidence of proper behaviour.

My worry is – if EHOs are going to looking on professional pest control reports in a negative light, then two things may occur:

  1. Unscrupulous pest control companies will falsify evidence by not writing accurate reports
  2. Restaurant owners may use this as a justification for not employing professional preventative pest control

This latter option is the most worrying. With many restaurants already finding it difficult to make money, some owners will look for any option to reduce outgoings. The newspapers are already full of stories of restaurants where it is clear pest control is not taken seriously and this tends to go hand-in-hand with poor hygiene controls. I’ve recently read about a cockroach being found on a poppadum in Cardiff, a rat infested Indian restaurant in Thame, and, on a more positive note, a restaurant in Middlesbrough that received a 5-star rating after being closed down under the previous owners because of a mouse infestation. The new owners have taken a positive attitude towards hygiene and pest control, and this has been rewarded.

Rewarding a restaurant for pursuing high levels of hygiene and pest control seems like a sensible course of action. But, are we really to say that the building in Middlesbrough is now immune to future rodent issues? That, as winter descends, the mice and rats won’t return to the scene of previous crimes? This time, it must be hoped, the restaurant owners and their pest control technicians will be ready but that may mean the incident is recorded in a report. 

This whole subject got us thinking and so Chris, our Technical Manager, decided to do a little digging to see what should be happening in a hygiene grading evaluation. It seems obvious to us that just using our report is an extremely lazy way of carrying out the EHO’s duties. In fact, pest control should only form part of the grading and, in comparison to other food safety issues, it is not the dominant consideration – higher up the list of failures are unsafe food storage and incorrect use of chopping boards.

It is clear to me, as a pest control expert with decades of experience, that poor pest control is a serious infringement of health and safety. If you are allowing rodents into your kitchen, then that would also suggest there are other more serious failings. If, however, the EHO is saying mice will never enter a safe kitchen, then I would suggest that the EHO doesn’t understand the realities of rodent-life and their desire to find food or warmth. What is important is how the restaurant deals with the infestation and whether suitable preventative measures are in place. This story may be a one-off and may not be representative, but it does ask serious questions about what is expected.

We recommend all restaurants have preventative pest control measures in place, with any incidence of rodent activity being immediately addressed in an appropriate manner.  These measures should also be checked regularly, although I do remember the words of a fireman I once met. This was back in the days when firemen regularly went to restaurants and hotels to check fire safety. He made the point that they could check a fire alarm worked but they couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t break ten minutes after they left.

The answer to all pest issues is constant vigilance and part of that policy must be to encourage the employment, by restaurants and hotels, of professional pest control services. My fear is, owners may be discouraged from doing this, if they are worried a report mentioning a mouse problem may later be used against them.