When you order a meal from your favourite take-away, or pop into your local cafe, maybe you take it for granted that your food was prepared in a safe and hygienic way.
And in most cases, it probably was, but there is a government-backed scheme that can let you know instantly.
The Food Standards Agency gives every premises that handles food, whether it be an in-store bakery or posh restaurant, a score from zero to five, based on its food hygiene.
And once these places are rated they can opt to display that rating with pride – or if they don’t, you might like to ask yourself why.
Steve Bell is the commercial team leader for environmental health at Portsmouth City Council and heads the eight-strong team that is responsible for carrying out inspections at the 1,689 food-handling premises in the city.
He says: ‘We have been inspecting the risk rating of places for years as part of the government guidelines.
‘The new thing is that they created this score to translate it into something the public can understand.’
All the businesses are regularly inspected, as frequently as every six months for higher-risk premises, up to every three years for low-risk premises, depending on the team’s risk assessment.
Mr Bell says: ‘For low-risk premises, an inspection can take just half-an-hour, for somewhere like a high-risk manufacturer of goods, it could take the best part of a day. If we find problems then it can take much longer.
‘The highest risk is where people are using raw food with cooked food because of the risk of cross-contamination.
‘A few years ago in Wales, a butcher was using the same packing machine for raw and cooked food, and unfortunately a little boy died as a result. (see panel, far right)
‘And it’s the Welsh that have been leading the way since then. Here in England places don’t have to display their scores if they don’t want to, but in Wales they’re making everyone display their score.’
The Food Hygiene Ratings (Wales) Bill was approved unanimously by the Welsh Assembly in January this year and became law on March 4, forcing all businesses to display their rating or face a fine. In England it remains optional for businesses to display the score.
‘As with other consumer issues, consumers are becoming more aware of their rights,’ adds Mr Bell.
‘And when you go out somewhere to eat, or buy food, there is always this risk that you are putting your life in their hands.
‘You are kind of reliant on our guys to make sure that side of things is taken care of.
‘We are looking for an immediate risk to public health, that’s when we have to evoke the ultimate power to close a place down.’
The impact of running an unclean business has been highlighted recently in court.
Last month Portsmouth City Council prosecuted Dale Alan, 57, and Ian Young, 60, after finding droppings and a dead mouse at the Dolphin pub, High Street, in February 2012.
The pair, who no longer run the pub, were each fined, £3,500 and ordered to pay £890 costs each after admitting seven breaches of food hygiene regulations.
Young, of Kent Road, Southsea, and Alan, who gave his address as the Dolphin, had earlier voluntarily agreed to close the pub for several days while urgent action was taken to clean and pest-proof the premises.
After a few days they were allowed to reopen, but further inspections showed continuing problems and the council decided to take legal action.
And late last year the council also secured the closure of a filthy bakery where inspectors found a mouse infestation and a robin flying around inside.
Justin O’Malley, 48, ran Portsmouth Bakers Ltd, at Dundas Spur, Copnor, Portsmouth.
He was prosecuted by Portsmouth City Council after failing to fix hygiene problems found by the officers.
Despite repeated visits and dealing with the inspectors, O’Malley failed to sort out the problems.
He was eventually found guilty at a trial in his absence of five food hygiene charges and fined £5,000, and ordered to pay £2,200 costs to the city. He was also banned from operating a food business in the UK – the first time the city had obtained such a ban.
Mr Bell says:‘We have emergency powers to order a place to close.
‘We have three days to put that request before magistrates to rubber-stamp it, and if they don’t agree, then the premises can be reopened.
‘It’s not a power we take lightly and in the past we have tried to work with businesses rather than use it straight away.
‘If we do use it, though, an emergency notice has to be put up explaining what’s happened.
‘The four or five-star places are usually quite happy to put their stars on the door.
‘They don’t have to display them, but if they’re not there you might wonder why, and they are all available to see on the website.
‘The way the system works, the idea is that we will go in to a place and take immediate remedial action with them if necessary, then the score stays with them for at least three months before they are reassessed.
‘Businesses ask: “If I sort the problem out now, can I keep my higher star rating?”
‘But we don’t do that, it would make the system meaningless if we allowed people to start making changes like that. The score is the result of the inspection as we saw it at that time. A lot of the public are still unaware of the ratings system.’
The ratings for all premises are available to search online.
For more information go to ratings.food.gov.uk where there is also an app available to download for your smartphone.