Once again, Which? research has uncovered a huge variation in hygiene standards nationally and highlighted the need to strengthen food law enforcement in many parts of the country.

While food businesses are ultimately responsible for compliance, our comparison of local authority food law enforcement work has found a postcode lottery for consumers. Some local authorities are ensuring a high level of compliance, while others are struggling.

Cherwell in Oxfordshire came top of the Which? ranking, with 98% of its medium and high-risk premises complying with hygiene rules. In comparison, Enfield was bottom of the table with just 54% compliance. Consumers there might as well toss a coin before deciding which outlet to trust with their health.

Local authorities will face very different circumstances and some have a lot more medium and high-risk premises than others. But our analysis looked at 398 authorities based on the FSA’s local authority enforcement monitoring system data and found a very mixed picture.

Our ranking took account of how effectively they were achieving compliance as well as how proactively they were trying to drive up standards, and found that size doesn’t necessarily matter. North East England featured most prominently in the top 10%, while London and Scottish authorities were most likely to appear in the bottom 10%.

Resourcing is clearly an issue and some services are under strain. But some of the authorities that had improved the most from our assessment 12 months ago told us they had achieved this by changing working practices.

Consumers clearly value this work, with 96% saying it is important that local authorities ensure compliance with food hygiene rules. Nine in 10 also said they would be concerned if resource constraints meant food businesses in their area were no longer inspected.

Food law enforcement needs to be reviewed and strengthened. Local authorities performing the poorest in our analysis need to assess why they are struggling. But it is also necessary to take a more fundamental look at how food enforcement is delivered with a greater focus on sharing resources, best practice and expertise and targeting areas of highest risk.

The FSA needs to lead this. Consumers should be able to rely on local authorities to clamp down on poor practice. They should also be able to easily identify non-compliant businesses and those that have the highest standards. Businesses should therefore be required to display food hygiene ratings across the UK, as is already the case in Wales.

Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?

“Resourcing is clearly an issue and some services are under strain”