Proposed hygiene barometer for German restaurants – a modern pillory?

10 August 2011

Jarste Akkermann

Not only the food industry is facing more and more restrictions and constraints by legislation whether it be labelling or health claims, but also the gastronomy is confronted with additional challenges in Germany.

The German conference of consumer protection state ministers has decided on the implementation of a so called hygiene barometer for restaurants on 19 May 2011. The hygiene barometer shall inform consumers about the hygiene situation of a particular restaurant. The barometer will consist of a colour scale ranging from green, yellow to red like a traffic light. The colour scale shall be placed visibly at each restaurant entrance. Green stands for no or minor deficiencies, yellow for medium and red for serious deficiencies. The colour scale is supposed to represent the result of the latest and the last three hygiene controls by the competent local food inspectors. The hygiene barometer will at first only apply to restaurants. Eventually, the German conference of consumer protection ministers has indicated that the system will be extended to bakeries, butchers and food retailing. The hygiene barometer aims at providing more transparency for consumers.

The decision for the implementation of the hygiene barometer goes back to an initiative of the Green party in the German state North Rhine- Westphalia. It also echoes a project in Berlin (status of a German state) initiated by the left-winged party, the so-called smiley system, operating similarly like the hygiene barometer. According to information from the Ministry for Consumer Protection in North Rhine- Westphalia currently there are complaints in connection with more than 30% of the restaurants and catering businesses in North Rhine- Westphalia with a rising tendency. 

The starting shot for the hygiene barometer is scheduled for 01 January 2012. The German Federal Legislation has been asked by the state ministers for consumer protection ministers to provide a draft law soon in order to pursue the scheme.  However, Mrs Ilse Aigner, the German Federal Minister for Consumer Protection has refused to produce the requested draft law until further notice. She argues that, firstly, the states would have to find a common ground. In contrast to the state ministers for consumer protection the state ministers for economic affairs oppose the project of a hygiene barometer arguing that the hygiene barometer would have a pillory effect. For that reason the state ministers for consumer protection have decided to meet again in the middle of September 2011 in order to discuss further measures.

Just like the smiley system the hygiene barometer project raises the question why it does not suffice to have regular controls by the local food inspectors. If food inspectors discover serious hygiene problems in a restaurant they are obliged to take measures and possibly close the restaurant until the problems have been resolved. The European Regulation No 852/2004 on the hygiene of foodstuffs provides sufficiently for hygiene standards. Need for additional smiley or hygiene barometers should therefore not arise. If the hygiene barometer shows a “red” signal indicating serious hygiene deficiencies, the restaurant would have to be closed anyway.

It stands to reason that the German Association of Gastronomy has criticised the Germany- wide hygiene barometer as a modern pillory for restaurants and caterings. If a restaurant has received negative inspection results by a yellow or red colour scale in the hygiene barometer, it will be strongly interested in gaining a better result by a green colour scale soon and to resolve its hygiene deficiencies. Therefore, the system must guarantee, vice versa, that follow-up controls are carried out without delay and restaurants have the chance to clear themselves of any concerns regarding their hygiene standard. But in practice that will be difficult to achieve by the local authorities due to understaffing and a lack of financial capabilities. If consumers shall be provided with more transparency it must not only account for negative but also for positive results in hygiene standards. Also, under restriction of commensurability restaurants are entitled to fair and reasonable treatment by the authorities. As long as the system does do not provide for sufficient staff of food inspectors and a proper functioning of the control system, the planned hygiene barometer is not justifiable.