A smiling or grimacing blue smiley: the first notes of the health checks carried out by the State in restaurants, slaughterhouses, supermarkets or canteens are now available to everyone on Monday April 3 on the internet, after a law and nearly three years of polemics. Four levels of marks are awarded on blue labels decorated with white smileys: “Very satisfactory”, “Satisfactory”, “To improve”, “To correct urgently”.
Only the fourth level induces a risk for public health and requires an emergency closure of the establishment, indicates to AFP an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, which is piloting this file, resulting from the Law of the Future of Agriculture adopted at the end of 2014. The first three levels do not involve “any risk to the health of the consumer”, according to the official.
The results of the 55,000 hygiene checks carried out each year in all kinds of establishments operating along the food chain will be gradually put online. On Monday, the results of only between 1,000 and 1,500 addresses are published, which correspond to the checks carried out during the month of March. They will be accessible on the site www.alim-confiance.gouv.fr, where they will remain visible for one year.
Transparency measures already taken in 8 European countries
The ratings can also be viewed via the alim’confiance “smartphone application, which can be downloaded from most stores (Apple, Windows and Android).” The objectives of this transparency are to promote establishments that are working well, to respond at the request of consumers, and globally, to improve the overall level of hygiene throughout the country “said the official.
This type of transparency measure has already been taken in eight European countries, mainly in the north (United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Norway). In all these countries, the measure was accompanied by an improvement in the health level of establishments, underlines the ministry. In ten years, in Denmark, there has been a 20% improvement in the overall level of hygiene, according to the same source.
But not everyone is satisfied. “We did not need measures like that at the moment, with the 3% drop in business volume recorded in the hotel and catering industry in 2015 and 2016”, says Hubert Jan, one of the managers of the main professional union in the sector, Umih. Umih has obtained that the display in the window of the postcard-size sticker, sent with the results of the checks, is not compulsory.
For him, “food hygiene is a prerequisite for exercising the profession of restaurateur”. “We were simply asking for two levels of marks: either the restaurant is compliant, or it is not and it is closed.” For him, even the acronym “satisfactory” would be “anxiety” for consumers.
“If the storage, the handling of the food, the training of the personnel are perfect, a simple slab of split tiling can justify the passage from the mention + very satisfactory + to + satisfactory + as shown by the experiments carried out in Paris and Avignon, he said.
“Branded with a red iron”
He does not like the “very satisfactory” rating either: “During the experiments, some used it as an advertising argument in front of neighboring restaurants which had not been checked and therefore could not respond” . There is a problem of unequal treatment and “commercial fairness,” he said.
Mr. Jan is also concerned about the lack of protection of digital data that can be retrieved by social networks and other online food guides. “They will publish the smileys on restaurant cards, and we will be indelibly branded with a hot iron,” he complains. A subject that he will discuss with the management of the online Trip Advisor guide that he meets in April.
To reassure, the ministry unveiled to AFP the results of the hygiene checks carried out in 2016: Over one year, only 1% of the establishments checked were deemed unhealthy and had to be closed, or 550 out of 55,000. Some 9% (or around 5,000) were rated “for improvement”. “All the others were either satisfactory or very satisfactory,” says the manager.
In 2016, 35% of checks were carried out in the food industry (slaughterhouses or processing sites), 25% in restaurants, 22% in canteens, and 18% in shops, neighborhood butchers, seafood department in a hypermarket, or retail sale on a farm.