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How to win over even the most stringent Environmental Health Officer

By Justin Sabastian Strange – Food Alert’s Principal Consultant

The saying ‘if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ has never rung truer than when the EHO inspector comes calling, but here are some bona fide insights into how they think and operate.

I say this with authority having been one myself and also a chef/manager, so hands-on experience from both sides of the fence. It can be tough and so it should be, but knowing how to achieve and retain top marks is all about sound business practice (not just for the EHO visit) and means compliance will become second nature and foster consistently good operational habits.

For starters, it’s a good idea to have written down and displayed with your safety policies what is expected from your team when the EHO attends, because these are things that should be considered and prepared in advance, so all information is given in a timely manner.

Additionally, ensure your staff are aware the EHO is on site and everyone acts and behaves accordingly.  It’s also worthwhile having a quick run through and checklist just beforehand, so there aren’t any glaring and avoidable errors.

Also, make certain your managers and staff know exactly how to act when an enforcement officer attends. Ask to see formal identification and the details of any authorisation notifications, plus that the officer waits until a senior member of staff is available to meet them.

On a personal level, be professional at all times, attentive and helpful – and keep smiling no matter how nervous you may feel. Accompany the EHO as appropriate, yet allow them to work as best as they can. Assist where possible, give clear answers to questions without over-volunteering information and seek clarification (without fear) if you don’t understand the question.

If possible, provide a working area away from the guests to review what is requested.  Also, ensure key front and back-of-house staff can be made available on demand without impacting service delivery. Avoid overcrowding the visit, as this can restrict staff movement, increase levels of stress and make the time spent at the premises even longer - so keep it to the essential key people.

Information requested by the EHO should be provided during the visit where available, because not giving sufficient reasons for complying is an offence and can result in a lower confidence in management score, or legal action for obstruction.  

Additional information can be sought after the visit through formal written requests and these must be supplied in due course, so make notes and action points and be clear on what the next steps are and what is expected from you in regards to any follow up letters and reports.

The main items that will be required during the visit are the Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan and temperature logs, pest management records, training record summaries, plus maintenance and cleaning records. A regularly updated HACCP plan is vital as ‘confidence in management’ accounts for around 33% of your Food Hygiene Rating, so it needs to be clear, simple and understood by all food handlers and not just the senior chefs. Quite simply, food safety and records management is everyone’s business and responsibility.

This is where a digital food safety / health & safety app comes in very handy, such as ALERT65.  It means all compliance information and policy documentation, such as HACCP information, can be easily accessed from across multiple locations and makes the EHO’s life much easier.

Visible standards, meanwhile give clues to the likely hygiene levels at your premises.  The EHO will check every aspect of your business from whether your walls, ceilings, floors, doors and windows are suitably clean and easy to maintain, to whether you’re fit for the purpose of producing safe food. 

For example, do you have separate facilities for hand washing, food preparation, cleaning and disinfection? The waste area must be orderly and tidy and crucially hot water must be available at all times or you can be temporarily closed down.

While there is always a structural aspect to an inspection, where there are limitations on the actual physical nature of the building fabric (e.g. converted and listed) EHOs tend to be more lenient if you are complying well in other areas such as hygiene, records and equipment management.

That’s not to say that structural items, such as equipment damage would be overlooked. Broken Victorian tiles may be taken into account, but fridge seals and the like must always be in good condition. The basic rule of thumb is keep it clean, fix what you can and show evidence of the items that you can’t.

Kitchen hygiene is obviously very important, but even more so is the time spent quizzing staff and inspecting records, as education and accredited training is crucial to running a compliant business and having policies and procedures in place is not enough – the inspector will request documented evidence that all staff have received the appropriate training and fully understand it.

Insufficient training or lack of it can dramatically affect the hygiene scores, so all staff should have a level 1 in food safety and health & safety with managers ideally at level 2 and supervisors level 3. Note that food handler training and certificates should be renewed at least every three years.  

Food Alert offers award winning training and e-learning courses across all aspects of personal hygiene, health & safety and the likes of tailored allergen management, while our 'Competent Manager Award' course expertly covers all aspects of Food Safety - including handling an EHO visit.

Last, but certainly not least, we’re considered one the industry’s hardest markers, so the general consensus is if you can pass a Food Alert audit you can deal with anything the EHO throws at you.

Get inside their minds – before they come calling – by telephoning 020 7244 1900 or emailing enquiries@foodalert.com