LAST week two food sellers in the Chichester district were successfully prosecuted for poor food-hygiene offences after investigation by Chichester District Council’s environmental health officers.
Goodwill House, a Chinese takeaway in Petworth, was ordered to pay more than £5,000 in fines and costs after a number of visits revealed serious concerns over food hygiene standards.
Similarly William Sweeney, who runs BDS Catering, which trades as Billys, was ordered to pay more than £3,000 after officers found dirty bread containers, a dirty fridge and a griddle covered in grease during an inspection in October.
The Observer went to meet Ian Brightmore, Health Protection manager of Chichester’s environmental health team.
He told us about some of his gruesome experiences and why their aim is always to work with food sellers, not against them, to raise standards in the local area.
From cockroaches in cupboards, mice in kitchens and even a dead lion in a freezer, Ian has seen it all during a career dedicated to investigating restaurants and food producers spanning more than 30 years.
“When I go out for a meal, I just have to switch off,” Ian tells me.
“Although if I do see something untoward in a restaurant, I’m obliged to have a quiet word. As you can imagine, our Christmas parties are a lot of fun.”
Ian and his team of three environmental officers and three technicians are employed by Chichester District Council to inspect around 1,500 food premises in the district and give over 1,300 of them a rating between 0-5.
Out of those, 793 have the top rating of 5 (very good), 244 have a four (good), 68 have a three (generally satisfactory), 31 have a 2 (improvement necessary), 25 have a 1 (major improvement necessary) and only three have a 0 (urgent improvement necessary).
All the scores can easily be found online by going to http://ratings.food.gov.uk where you can search for a business individually or by street name, town or postcode.
Between 2013 and 2014, 92.9 per cent of premises were found to be ‘broadly compliant’ and scored a 3 or above.
Food sellers are encouraged to clearly display their ratings, which is why you will have seen those little green signs on the doors of some places you eat at.
“There are a number of powers we have when we find that conditions are unsatisfactory,” said Ian.
“The first thing we do is to seek cooperation in putting things right and this usually works. In situations where it doesn’t we can serve a hygiene improvement notice, which legally requires the owner to make improvements by a certain period of time.
“If we find something we deem to be dangerous, we can serve an emergency prohibition notice.
“That means a premises must shut until that problem is resolved.
“Most take the decision to voluntarily close so as not to draw attention to the public but for those who refuse, we can go to the court where the magistrate will confirm the notice and turn it into an order.
“It will then close until we are happy that it’s safe to re-open, normally that takes two or three days, although a cockroach infestation can take longer as they’re difficult to get rid of.
“In the most extreme cases, we have the powers of prosecution, which was the case with the two businesses last week.”
Thankfully this is unusual for the area, with Ian estimating on average around one business a year is prosecuted and fined by the courts.
“If it’s a first offence it’s unlikely to lead to prosecution, more often it’s the repeat offenders or those who have caused someone illness who are dealt with in this way.”
Officers can turn up at any time and without advance notice and Ian says that whilst trying to be sensitive to business needs, turning up at busier times is normally the best way of gauging actual working practices.
A food outlet will be inspected between every six months to every three years.
Ian estimates his team visits between 700 to 800 businesses a year, the equivalent of fifteen a week.
Perhaps surprisingly it is not only dirty takeaways and restaurants which are given a low score, as the team are just as concerned with stamping out potentially dangerous ways of handling food and operating.
“A premises can be awarded a maximum rating of 1 if we find bad food practices.
“So you could potentially have a brand-new restaurant with a low score because the way they do things causes the risk of cross contamination.”
As well as the usual insects, rats and mice, he’s found at the worst offenders, Ian also came across something no-one would expect to find in a food establishment.
“When I was working in another area I came across a dead lion in a freezer,” he said.
“The food establishment was near a zoo and the owner kept pack hounds so it was food for them, but because it was kept in a place where food for human consumption was stored, of course we had to take action.”
Ian and his team not only inspect restaurants and takeaways, but anywhere that sells food – from leisure centres to schools and colleges and shops that stock chocolate bars.
As well as this, food manufacturers have to be inspected particularly rigorously as potential contamination at the source of production could lead to mass outbreaks of food poisoning around the country.
With one of the UK’s largest canned food and drink manufacturers, Princes having a factory on Terminus Road in Chichester, as well as major salad producer Nature’s Way Foods operating from three locations locally, the team certainly have their work cut out.
And anyone who finds unwanted items in their food products are also directed to the environmental health team, ensuring they are always busy.
But as Ian is quick to point out, they are not there to ‘catch people out’.
“Thankfully we have a very good relationship with the vast majority of food places we visit,” he said.
“We are not policemen, we’re not there to trip people up but to protect the public and help businesses operate better food practices so that hygiene standards are raised.”