Bishop's Stortford's café boom is growing challenge for East Herts Council's environmental health team
Bishop’s Stortford’s burgeoning café culture means a boom for East Herts Council’s environmental health officers.
Every time a new eatery in the town opens its doors, the authority must inspect the premises to ensure food is being prepared in a hygienic manner.
The team also revisits outlets in rotation, according to risk, to give consumers confidence that their purchases are safe.
There are currently around 250 catering premises in the Bishop’s Stortford area and approximately 20 registered with the council in 2019 alone.
The Indie was invited to observe when Rachal Kiss, technical officer (commercial), and Alimat Adenekan, senior environmental health practitioner (commercial), inspected Penny and Lou, the family-friendly South Street café.
The business, run by mother and daughter Penny Rogers and Louise Wickens, opened last summer. Both women are experienced when it comes to safe food handling as Louise formerly worked for burger chain Byron while Penny owned coffee shops in Dedham and Colchester – but Louise admitted inspections could be an anxious time.
While practices may be safe, incomplete or incorrect record-keeping can dent the final 'Scores on the Doors' rating, which awards premises a score between 1 – 'urgent improvement necessary' – and 5, which is very good.
Lou said: “When you first start out you're constantly thinking about food hygiene, but then good practice just becomes a habit – it’s just the way things are done.”
It's clear that mother and daughter are hitting the mark. Rachal, who is training and under supervision by Alimat, uses a torch to check nooks and crannies for cleanliness, checks sell-by and use-by dates on food, probes the temperature of the fridge and freezer with a digital thermometer and even checks for deposits on the dishwasher trays.
A clean spoon temporarily left in a bowl of chilled soft fruits is the only minor cause for concern.
The pair also inspect the outside bin area and question Louise about the café’s laundry. Penny and Lou’s kitchen area is in the main body of the café so customers can see their meals being prepared. Louise reassures officers that she uses separate utensils when preparing dairy-free drinks to prevent cross-contamination.
Part of Alimat and Rachal’s job also is to test the allergy advice Louise gives customers about what’s on the menu. Food allergies, intolerances and coeliac disease are thought to affect more than three million people in the UK and, in severe cases, they can be life-threatening or result in death. The UK is one of the top three countries in the world for the highest incidence of allergies.
The visit is also a chance for Louise to ask for expert advice and she asks Alimat for the latest guidance on defrosting and serving frozen prawns.
The team are anxious to emphasise that they welcome the chance to help businesses make the grade by complying with the four Cs: cross-contamination, cleaning, chilling, cooking.
At the end of the visit, Penny and Lou has retained its top rating of 5 in the Food Standards Agency's Food Hygiene Rating Scheme.
Louise said: “I think people are interested in the score. It must give them confidence in you when they know you've been rated and got a good grade.”
She said that criticism of hygiene on social media could be disastrous for a fledgling business.
East Herts has eight officers on its food safety and hygiene inspection team and each year they carry out between 300 and 400 inspections.
A spokeswoman for the district council said: “In addition, officers will undertake advisory visits and provide advice over the phone to businesses, all free of charge. As an active member of Better Business for All (BBfA) we are keen to support businesses across the district.
“The number of businesses will always fluctuate due to businesses opening and closing on a weekly basis. At present we have around 1,200 businesses that fall under the scope of the national Food Hygiene Rating Scheme.
"Of note, of those who have received a rating across the whole of East Herts Council, 70% have a rating of 5 and 98% have a rating of 3 or more. In the Bishop's Stortford area this equates to 179 premises receiving a rating of 5."