Keeping takeaways and restaurants on their toes is no mean feat.

But Stockton Council’s environment chief has stressed it’s not just a case of slapping a zero rating on a restaurant and then waiting for an improvement.

Environmental health manager Steve Donaghy told councillors how a low food hygiene rating meant plenty of partnership work with firms in the aftermath of a sub-par score.

He offered up an in-depth guide to councillors of what his food safety team actually gets up to at the authority’s latest adult social care meeting.

WHAT DOES THE COUNCIL GET UP TO?

Stockton Council has a “statutory obligation” from the government to take on inspection regimes, controls, enforcement right through to prosecutions in food safety and making sure it’s “fit for human consumption”.

Mr Donaghy said food hygiene ratings were often “subject to a lot of attention by the public and media”.

“It’s not mandatory in the UK for businesses to display the star rating except in Wales – it’s something which is being looked at,” he explained.

“But we actively encourage displaying the scoring scheme on the doors and we also promote it as much as possible so members of the public know at any point in time they can go to the FSA website and they can look at any food premises.”

HOW DOES STOCKTON STACK UP?

TOTAL APPLICABLE ESTABLISHMENTS – 1,296

FIVE STAR – 1,065

FOUR STAR – 141

THREE STAR – 62

TWO STAR – 14

ONE STAR – 13

ZERO STAR – 1

Mr Donaghy said these were “incredibly positive statistics” and said the level of “compliance” with three stars or more was “outstanding”.

But the environment chief didn’t think many members of the public knew what the rating system actually meant.

Mr Donaghy added: “When my officers are there on an inspection and they note a zero or one star premises, the perception from the public is they give them their rating and that’s that.

“They don’t. They spend the next number of months working with them to ensure every single piece of change necessary is undertaken.

“They turn up about 7am, 7.30am each day, day after day to ensure it’s been done.

“We do not leave the premises until it is broadly compliant, so there’s an absolute minimisation of risk to the public.

“I know it’s something which is very topical but, to a certain extent, misunderstood.”

‘ONLY THREE STAFF’

A council report prepared for the meeting showed the authority’s food safety inspection team only had “3.3 staff” covering 1,630 premises.

And this sparked questions and concerns from councillors on the panel.

But Mr Donaghy said his food team had got by.

He added: “Given the last 18 months, where we have been operating on 3.3 officers, and one of those officers was an unqualified student, we have still managed to maintain and we have done with every single available officer with the competency to do so.

“It’s important you also understand the food law code of practice has a strict competency framework on food inspectors – they have to be even minimum competency level before they can even go out and inspect a food premises.

“We cannot just draft in half our other environmental health officers to do the job – that team has sustained itself with my support, directors’ and staff to make sure we can maintain those standards and we have done.”

Cllr Sylvia Walmsley was full of praise for the team.

“When you look at the amount of premises that your limited team are managing and the results you are getting, they are absolutely superb,” she said.

“What we are worried about is you are saying you are working under immense pressure and we don’t like to see that.

“It’s putting too much pressure on yourselves and cannot be expected to continue.”

Mr Donaghy told the panel he’d managed to redirect money from other budgets to draft in a contractor to so do “a small piece of work” on “very low level food premises”.

“It allowed the three remaining officers to concentrate their attention towards those,” he added.

“We have all bases covered to ensure we’ve come through a difficult lean period and my officers have done exceptionally well.”

He also said his staff were returning from maternity leave in the near future to ease these pressures.

BREAD AND BUTTER WORK

Mr Donaghy said the “bread and butter work” of the team tended to be food inspections themselves.

“We aren’t simply regulators – we don’t just have a big list of food premises that we are required to inspect and re-score,” he said.

“We have a number of other things we believe are essential to ensuring you have compliant and safe food premises.”

If a member of the public calls the food team, they spring into action.

Mr Donaghy explained: “If they believe they are storing waste in large amounts causing accumulation issues or attracting vermin – we will accept those requests and investigate them as diligently as we would with any complaint.

“We will take any necessary recitative action and offer advice and training to make sure we prevent it rather than having to deal with it later on.”

STATISTICS (Compliance = three star and above)

STOCKTON – total premises: 1630. Compliance: 97.76%

MIDDLESBROUGH – total premises: 1260. Compliance: 96.15%

REDCAR AND CLEVELAND – total premises: 1156. Compliance: 96.53%

DARLINGTON – total premises: 991. Compliance: 96.21%

HARTLEPOOL – total premises: 822. Compliance: 96.21%

‘GOOD STUFF IN A PIE’

Another job the team has is taking food samples.

Mr Donaghy said: “Sampling at the council is split two way – Trading Standards undertake compositional food samples to make sure there is x amount of good stuff in a pie.

“And we look at the safety element for composition, bacteria and when someone actually physically sends us food stuff with something contained within it.”

These rogue foods are sent off for analysis for “physical, microbial or chemical contaminants” before a thorough investigation.

And should the mother of all food poisoning bugs land, it’s Mr Donaghy’s team on the front line alongside Public Health England (PHE) making sure it gets no further.

He added: “Any time there is an outbreak, whether it is food poisoning or something perhaps a little bit more tropical, we would be part of the control management team.

“We would investigate, contact individuals and gain samples to very quickly establish what has caused the problem and make sure secondary spread between infected individuals, secondary family members and work colleagues is dealt with.”

DO THEY DO MUCH ELSE?

As well as being food inspectors, respondents to complaints, experts in infectious disease and sampling, the team also offers out advice through a chargeable service – boosting the council’s coffers by £40,000 a year.

Mr Donaghy said: “In the grand scheme of things it perhaps doesn’t seem a huge amount – but there is something very important about that amount of money that people don’t understand.

“That £40,000 in my opinion equates to £400,000 or more in saved time and resources because we are training people in how to properly handle food, infection control, hygiene control, advice on allergens, labelling and bringing them equipment so they can monitor temperature records.

Mr Donaghy said very few authorities retained this help and said it reaped “unseen savings”.

“It’s the three or four outbreaks you don’t get a year, it’s the fact that people aren’t in hospital because they’ve contracted a food borne infection, it’s the positivity towards business – which is one of the excellent things this council delivers.”

COUNCILLORS’ REACTION

Cllr Kevin Faulks told colleagues how he’d gone to “zero-rated” establishment outside the borough.

And Cllr Mohammed Javed asked if there was a legal requirement for takeaway staff to be clean.

Cllr Javed added: “There are many cases I have come across, especially in food takeaways, where staff preparing food do not have uniforms which are very clean.”

Mr Donaghy told him there were “huge long lists” of rules which were enforced by his team.

He added: “There most certainly is a requirement for them to be hygienic and presentable – they don’t have to look amazing, but they have to be clean and make sure the action they have undertaken doesn’t cause any risk to contamination of foodstuffs.”

Cllr Norma Stephenson said it was easy to sit in meetings and make “sweeping statements” but it was a councillor’s responsibility to protect the public.

She added: “Outfits are part of basic food handling so rather than make a statement like that if you know of areas like that you need to report them and get them sorted.”

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