Zero Food Hygiene Ratings: Everything You Need To Know

Zero food hygiene ratings are not something that any food business wants to receive. 

And it's probably a fair bet to assume that most people would probably avoid eating at these places too.

But what does a 'zero' rating actually mean, and is it really unsafe to eat there?  Well, stay tuned, because this article answers these questions and more.

Let's go!

What does a zero food hygiene rating mean?

A food hygiene rating of 'zero' is at the bottom of the food hygiene ratings scale.  In short, it means 'urgent improvement' is necessary.

A zero rating is the lowest rating that a business can receive after a food hygiene inspection.  It means there's serious problems when it comes to food safety and hygiene practices. 

A business would then need to take immediate action to bring things up to standard.

To arrive at an overall rating for the business, food safety officers look into several areas.  These include the handling, preparation, cooking and storage of food.

They also consider the cleanliness of the facilities used to prepare food.  And they inspect the condition of the premises.

Confidence in management and the procedures they use are also checked.

To determine the hygiene rating, officers add the scores together from each category.

The higher the score the worse the establishment has performed at the time of inspection.

This final score is then used to determine the hygiene rating for the business.

Establishments that score 50 or more will get a hygiene rating of zero.

You can find out more about how the food hygiene rating is calculated here.

How bad is a zero food hygiene rating?

A zero food hygiene rating is bad for any business.  But it may not be bad for the end customer.  That's because a zero hygiene rating doesn't necessarily mean an establishment is 'bad'.

It also doesn't mean that the food an establishment provides is not fit for human consumption.

In fact, you can get some very clean food establishments with a zero food hygiene rating. 

During a hygiene rating inspection, establishments are typically evaluated in three main areas.  Only one of those areas is hygienic food handling.  The other two areas are:

  • Cleanliness and condition of facilities and building
  • The management of food safety.  This includes the procedures/paperwork a business has in place.

But, some businesses can achieve a zero hygiene rating because of hygiene issues.  Or they may have failings across all three areas. 

Some of these establishments may have cross-contamination issues and pest infestations.

So, before you eat, it's wise to check the hygiene rating.  But you should also look at the individual scores for the three main areas that make up the rating.

You can find out the hygiene rating of any food business on the Food Standards Agency website.  Or you can find them here on Food Owl.

Is it safe to eat at a zero food hygiene establishment?

If authorities haven't ordered the business to shut down and stop trading, then it is safe to eat there.

Not all zero food hygiene establishments produce food that is unsafe to eat. 

If there is an imminent risk to the public, then the authorities have the power to shut down part or all the business.

What happens if you get a zero food hygiene rating

If a business receives a zero hygiene rating, they must make improvements urgently.

The authorities will then provide advice and guidance on how to improve.  They will also tell the business the required timescales for these improvements.

The business will continue to have a zero hygiene rating until their next inspection.  Or until they are re-rated.  This usually happens within one month.

Then, if the business has improved sufficiently, they'll receive a new, improved rating.

In the meantime, a food business can suffer financially due to the low rating.  It can also affect a company's reputation, particularly if it makes the local news.  This can further affect the bottom line.

The general public are aware of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme.  As such, if they see a restaurant or a takeaway with a zero rating, they will assume that it is not safe to eat in.

What powers do food enforcement officers have?

Local councils only have the power to shut down premises if there is an imminent risk to public health.

If there is a risk to public health, authorities may order the part or all the business to close down. 

How to avoid a zero food hygiene rating

Following good food hygiene practices is essential in avoiding a poor hygiene rating.

This includes (but not limited to):

  • Handling, preparing and storing food safely to prevent cross-contamination
  • Maintaining a clean and hygienic environment.  Cleaning equipment, surfaces, and floors regularly.
  • Ensuring that all staff have the necessary knowledge/training to handle food safely.
  • Implementing effective pest control measures.
  • Having a documented food safety management system in place and following it consistently.  The 'safe food better business' pack on my resources page is a great place to start.
  • Regularly checking and maintaining food safety records.

For more in-depth advice, read my article on How to Earn a 5-Star Food Hygiene Rating.

How many zero rated establishments are in the UK?

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are 541,277 food businesses registered with the Food Standards Agency.

Out of those, a total of 835 businesses have achieved a rating of zero (0.15%).

What's the equivalent of a zero rating in Scotland?

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, authorities use the Food Hygiene Information scheme.

Scotland uses a different scheme called the Food Hygiene Information Scheme (FHIS).

Although the schemes are similar, they have different rating scales.

Businesses in Scotland either receive a 'Pass', 'Improvement Required' or are 'Exempt'.

A 'pass' simply means that the business has met the legal requirements for food hygiene.

The 'Improvement Required' rating indicates that the business did not meet legal requirements.  These businesses must take steps to improve their food hygiene practices.

In Scotland, there are 56,402 food businesses registered with Food Standards Scotland.

Out of those, a total of 3,221 businesses have achieved a rating of 'Improvement Required' (5.71%).

The bottom line

When considering somewhere to eat, it's important to look at the hygiene rating.  Don't just rely on your gut instinct or your own judgment. 

The hygiene rating is based on the experienced, professional opinion of the environmental officer.

One final tip is to look out for the rating near the entrance to a food establishment. 

In Wales and Northern Ireland it is mandatory for businesses to display their rating.  But in England it isn't.  But businesses with a five star rating are likely to display their rating somewhere. 

Businesses that have a zero rating are less likely to display their rating.  But you can check online.  Bear in mind that some large brands may also choose not to display their rating.  One reason for this is that it may not fit with their branding.