At first glance, food safety doesn’t seem to be something the average c-store customer should be especially concerned about when they pop in to buy their morning newspaper. After all, what foodie threats are really going to be lurking between the chiller cabinet and the tinned goods shelf?

However, with increased public concern over food safety, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) feels that c-stores must be held up to public scrutiny in the same way as a pub or Chinese takeaway.

The Scores on the Doors scheme, which launched in 2008, is designed to encourage better hygiene in all places that serve food, including c-stores, by awarding premises a hygiene rating out of five according to European Union food hygiene standards. The scores run from no stars (“little or no appreciation of food safety and a failure to comply to legal requirements”) all the way up to five (“very high standards of compliance with food safety legislation”). After the premises is inspected, these scores are put on the internet for consumers to view.

At present, each Scores on the Doors scheme is run by local authorities in a slightly different way according to guiding principles put down by the FSA (see panel). Local authorities choose whether they want to take part; if they do retailers have to undergo an assessment.

A steering group is currently working towards a national standard that should be in place by June 2010 although participation by local authorities will still not be mandatory and retailers will not be legally obliged to signpost their ratings in-store where customers can see them.

While some retailers have welcomed Scores on the Doors, critics are left wondering exactly how the scheme relates to a traditional c-store’s offer.

Shane Brennan, public affairs director at the Association of Convenience Stores, says that the association is now ‘resigned’ to the scheme, despite having serious misgivings about how it would work in practice.

“We opposed the scheme because we didn’t believe there were any real benefits for customers,” he says. “I don’t think that c-store consumers need much more than their eyes to see if a store is clean or not.

“The need for food safety in convenience stores is fairly low. Things may be different if you have a deli counter, but if you have a few fridges and aren’t handling food then it doesn’t add any extra benefit if you have three or four stars.”

He adds that the rating system itself could confuse customers. “There are five different star ratings, and as long as you have one star you’re perfectly safe, but customers are led to believe a store with five stars is somehow better than a store with two. I don’t believe consumers are going to be looking at star ratings online before they pop out for a bottle of milk!”

Simon Biddle from Biddles Convenience Store in Webheath, Worcestershire, owns a c-store specialising in homemade food including pies, cakes and sandwiches. He has recently opened a dedicated deli in Studley and narrowly missed top marks from his local council because he hadn’t provided a ‘method statement’ about his cooked meats.

However, he thinks that, overall, Scores on the Doors can be positive for retailers. “There have to be laws of hygiene,” he says. “That way every retailer has to keep their premises clean and be aware of things like best-before dates.”

Simon adds that when dealing with food inspectors who possess the power to rate your premises, a little diplomacy goes a long way. “If you’re not happy about something, don’t get angry with the inspector,” he advises. “Calm down. Speak to the council later and try and get them to see things a different way.”

Neil Lindsell, sales operation manager at Country Choice, provides advice to retailers with a bake-off to help them meet the hygiene standards imposed through Scores on the Doors. He concurs that at the start of the process maintaining a good relationship with local authorities is key to boosting your chances of a good score.

“One of the best things retailers can do is to contact the council first and ask the experts what they need to do to meet the criteria. Keeping the channels of communication open makes the process a lot easier right from day one. It’s worth looking at local authorities as having an advisory role, rather than just being the people who police the scheme.”

On the scoreboard

To attain even a basic Scores on the Doors rating, stores that sell baked goods must be aware of the food hygiene issues having a bake-off raises, such as keeping food at the correct temperature and ensuring stock is fresh. Lindsall recommends that new stores planning to install a bake-off should look at hygiene requirements first to avoid problems from inspectors later on.

“Shopfitters may not pay as much attention to building the bake-off area as we would advise. It’s often the last thing to be built and the first area to be used in a new store.

“Before you open it’s important to get the really simple things right, like making sure you have a hot water tank that supplies enough water to fill a sink and that the sink is big enough to comfortably wash a baking tray. There are other planning issues, too, such as checking there’s room to put the bins the correct distance from the working area.”

Lindall thinks that Scores on the Doors has the potential to be positive for c-stores, as long as the schemes are run properly and are fair and accurate.

“The schemes provide the potential for the whole convenience sector to prove that independents are just as hygienic as chains like Tesco and Sainsbury’s,” he says.

Installing a bake-off was the starting point from which Armin Ahmetagic was able to achieve a five-star Scores on the Doors rating at the Nisa store he manages in Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire.

“Before we installed the bake-off we had the council round to do an analysis of what procedures we had to have in place,” he says. “Obviously, some procedures were new to us, so we went through cleaning in the bake-off area and identifying stock checks with them.”

Along with his boss Kishor Patel, Armin drew up a hygiene mission statement, laminated it and put it on the employee noticeboard. Now all staff can see what has to be done to maintain the maximum measures for hygiene within the bake-off. The statement became a springboard to introduce new procedures across the rest of the store. These included making sure that that stock was rotated properly, with best-before checks being carried out three times a day.

Armin believes that his star rating is an essential part of ensuring the reputation of the store remains high in the local area.

“These days everyone is on the internet,” he says. “People do look up the ratings for local cafés, restaurants and stores. Word of mouth spreads, so we’re proud to have our five stars.”

Vic Grewal runs a Budgens store in Chorleywood, which specialises in hot food thanks to its open-plan deli counter. He proudly displays notification of his four-star score so customers can see it as they walk in off the street to do their shopping.

“Customers already know that the store is going to be clean,” he says. “But having the rating there gives them more confidence that it’s going to be a really nice place.”

To secure his rating, Vic made sure that a strict cleaning routine was in place across the store, and especially for the food areas.

“Our staff have a routine every evening where they’ll clean the work areas, the floor and everything else that needs to be done according to a strict timetable. Because the deli area is open plan, customers can see what’s going on at all times, so they would instantly pick up on it if it became dirty.”

Vic believes that maintaining cleanliness is a fundamental part of running a successful c-store and carries out regular inspections where he checks shelves, floors and nooks and crannies for dust. He warns against assuming that third-party cleaners always do a good job, and suggests checking their work and making sure areas are re-cleaned if necessary.

Despite an initial backlash from the c-store sector it looks like Scores on the Doors is here to stay. But ultimately the success of a scheme which is not compulsory for all depends on the response from both c-stores and consumers.