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In The Dark – How much do we know about the food we’re ordering?

In April, it was estimated that Brits will be eating 503 million more meals in the home than usual – every single week.  Although a lot of this food will be home cooked (for example, people who are furloughed or working from home may now be cooking breakfasts), a significant percentage of meals can be attributed to takeaways and deliveries.  

With many of the large brands closed for business during lockdown, many customers are relying on independent local brands for their Friday night takeaway – but, how do we know if our tasty treat is safe?

Taking chances

We’ve recently seen news stories about fast food suppliers using ‘dark kitchens’ to provide takeaways during lockdown.  It’s claimed that this has resulted in over two million people falling ill due to eating tainted, unregulated food. 

Illnesses due to contaminated food can range from mild nausea and vomiting to more life threatening conditions, particularly in the cases of people with underlying health issues.  In this article, we’re going to look at the recent rise in the number of dark kitchens operating around Europe and, will decipher the sometimes baffling food hygiene regulations.  

Ghost in the machine

Dark kitchens (also known as ghost kitchens) is a recent phenomenon and, refers to standalone food delivery businesses (including prepared food and meal kits) which do not have a physical restaurant or takeaway outlet for customers to visit.  

Often temporary, dark kitchens have been prevalent during the COVID-19 crisis.  Food delivery giant, Deliveroo, now owns 150 dark kitchens across the UK under its Editions brand – all of which prepare food exclusively for delivery.  

As the situation continues to evolve, larger brands – including McDonalds – are also now taking advantage of dark kitchens in order to keep their business afloat until restaurants are able to open to the public again. 

Is your brisket worth the risk?

According to the Food Standards Agency, 2.4 million people fall ill from eating tainted or incorrectly prepared food and, of the 380,000 known food-borne illnesses, almost two thirds are attributed to takeaways. 

For the most part, this concerns food which has been contaminated by the illness known as the Winter vomiting bug or Norovirus.  The bug, which can be serious in some cases, enters the body by being inhaled or by contact with the faeces or vomit of somebody who is infected (an unpalatable thought to say the least, in terms of takeaway food contagion).   

Unfortunately, we can assume that, as our consumption of takeaways increases during the crisis, so too will the number of illnesses – some of which can be fatal.  

This risk is further compounded by the fact that dark kitchens pose a new set of issues regarding health and safety.  Although the majority of food delivery companies adhere to strict guidelines, a Watchdog report has revealed that some unbranded companies are selling food through social media platforms like Facebook without so much as a link to an actual website.  

Worse still, it’s alleged that many of these are hiring untrained staff as well as taking a cavalier attitude to health and safety guidelines and, often ignoring allergen warnings.  With millions of takeaway meals ordered every day across Europe, we may just find ourselves swapping one pandemic for another as the number of serious food poisoning cases increase. 

In response to these new allegations, the Food Standards Agency says that it has advised Facebook that all food sold through its platform must be policed appropriately.  The agency confirms that it is actively targeting restaurants and apps using platforms like social media which may be flying under the radar in terms of visibility and accountability. 

Standard fare

So, just what do we mean by food standards?  In truth, this is an ever-evolving methodology but, every country has a governing body which is tasked with regulating food which is produced, sold and imported into the country.  For the UK, the Food Standards Authority (FSA) works to make sure that food within England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales is safe and fit for purpose.  Part of the FSA’s remit is food businesses such as restaurants, takeaways and pubs and, these businesses must register with their local business in order to be regulated for health and hygiene.  The FSA visits and inspects food businesses and awards them a rating of 0 to 5 depending on the standard of the premises.  A restaurant’s food rating should be displayed on an external door or window of the premises in order to inform the public.  It should also be displayed on a business’s website. These food standard ratings are marked as follows: 

5 – Hygiene standards are very good

4 – Hygiene standards are good

3 – Hygiene standards are generally satisfactory

2 – Some improvement is necessary

1 – Major improvement is necessary

0 – Urgent improvement is required

Food businesses which require improvement will be given a deadline to complete the improvements, after which there will be another inspection.  If a business consistently performs poorly, the FSA does have the power to have the restaurant closed down in order to protect the interests of the public.

You want lies with that?

Before we all breathe a sigh of relief that our favourite local restaurant has a good rating, we may not be seeing the whole story.  There are a number of ways in which food standard ratings may be considered unreliable.  The least sinister of these reasons is a lot more common than we think.  

A restaurant is often not informed of when an inspection takes place.  This makes perfect sense as it means that the business doesn’t have the chance to perform an inspection-ready quick fix to cover up underlying issues.  This can, however, mean that a business might be given a disproportionately poor rating down to what could just be considered a bad day.  

For example, a restaurant which is normally exemplary may be experiencing sudden staffing issues and, as a result, is not as clean as it would usually be.

On the other side of this, there are ways in which some restaurants deliberately try to deceive their customers in terms of food rating and, these are: 

Time travel

Some restaurants whose standards have experienced a decline have been known to display an outdated rating badge on their premises.  Business owners might choose to do this as a safe gamble that customers won’t inspect the badge too closely.  

This is usually a crime committed by a restaurant whose latest rating is less than appetising.

The fakes

In a similar vein to displaying outdated badges, some restaurants and takeaways make the decision to create a fake food standards badge if the one they’ve received legitimately doesn’t come up to snuff.  

In the modern world, all this really takes is a colour printer and a bunch of customers who are going to be so hungry that they won’t be examining the badge too closely. 

Although the FSA works hard to clamp down on these unscrupulous methods, some do slip through the net.  Last year, the FSA found that 21 restaurants in London alone were displaying fake or outdated badges.  A restaurant caught doing this can be fined up to £3100 – in fact, in 2019, the number of fines issued by the FSA reached a four year high.  

The new normal

Across Europe, the food and hospitality industries are beginning to struggle back to life as lockdown restrictions are lifted.  Countries such as Poland, Italy and Spain have allowed restaurants and bars to reopen with some restrictions such as outdoor seating only and, other countries are set to follow suit within the next couple of months. 

Although this can be seen as good news, it will mean that food standard agencies will be under increasing pressure to ensure that our food is safe.  Although there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food, authorities are watching the situation carefully.  As we move forward, it’s likely that the landscape will be very different to that which we’re used to.  We can speculate that restaurants and bars will be working to keep customers safe by introducing a number of measures including: 

  • Outdoor only seating
  • Contactless payment
  • Less seating to facilitate social distancing
  • Bare tables (some restaurants are planning to remove condiments from tables to reduce the risk of cross-contamination
  • Reduced numbers

The last point in particular is important as a requirement to limit the number of customers will result in financial hardship for many businesses.  

For this reason, it’s expected that the upward trend for takeaway business will continue – with more and more businesses getting on board with food delivery companies such as Upmenu in order to increase food orders. 

Whatever the future may hold for our food industry, one thing is clear.  Businesses which flout the laws and guidelines will find themselves facing crippling fines if they try to cut corners in order to fill tables. 

For more information on the FSA’s Coronavirus guidelines, go to 

https://www.food.gov.uk/news-alerts/news/fsa-publishes-guidance-for-consumers-on-coronavirus-covid-19

Thanks to Lally from Upmenu for providing additional data for this publication 

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