A staggering 800 premises where food is sold in Northern Ireland have obtained poor scores in hygiene rating schemes, it can be revealed.
However, customers are unlikely to know whether they are eating somewhere with an official low score.
That's because four out of five of the lower-scoring restaurants, cafés, takeaways, hotels and food shops are simply not displaying scores on their doors.
Of the 800 marked below the average of three out of five, only 22% disclosed results to patrons.
And now the Food Standards Agency (FSA) wants to make it mandatory for all food-serving businesses to clearly display their ratings
The Stormont Health committee was recently told new laws will be necessary to make the current voluntary scheme compulsory.
It also heard how there are 20 deaths in Northern Ireland, 450 hospitalisations and 48,500 cases seen by GPs annually that are the result of food-borne illness.
FSA official Maria Jennings said: "We feel that a mandatory approach to that would greatly strengthen the scheme and increase its potential to improve public health protection.
"It will require the introduction of primary legislation."
Already embroiled in the ongoing scandal over food production standards, the FSA will next week launch an advertising campaign to persuade customers to vote with their feet and choose the higher-rated establishments.
The campaign includes a poster with the graphic image of a meal in a urinal with the slogan: "Where are you really eating out?"
And a 12-week consultation exercise is also just under way into how a mandatory scheme – still probably at least two years away – would work.
FSA official Kathryn Baker told the Belfast Telegraph: "A mandatory scheme is the next logical step. We are not disappointed at how the voluntary scheme has worked, it is what we expected.
"The scheme has done well but people have said to us if they go to a restaurant and do not see the rating displayed when they go through the door, they do not think about it. We are expecting there to be a lot of mixed views, as there were when the scheme first came in. We want people to change their behaviour and use the scheme so they can make the switch to establishments with a higher rating."
Sinn Fein's Mickey Brady said: "If you do not have to display a score, I cannot imagine anyone putting up a nought, one, three or whatever. It would not be good for business."
Mr Brady said that a mandatory scheme "would only make standards higher and, presumably, it would make for more competitiveness."
FSA official Maria Jennings said that while businesses are not required to display the score that they get, research has shown that the success of the scheme depends on consumers making informed choices about where they eat.
"To be able to do that, they need access to the score. If scores are not displayed, consumers can find the information by using a smartphone app or by looking up a list on our website," she said.
"However, we know that only 34% of adults in Northern Ireland own a smartphone and about 30% of households do not have access to the internet.
"We also know that the majority of people make decisions about where they eat out quickly and when they are out and about, so they would not necessarily be able to look it up on a computer."
The consultation, which is running until April, will include a number of 'stakeholder' events and after consideration of all comments the FSA will seek the Executive's approval to draft a Bill. But it could be another two years, at least, before it becomes law.
• Currently, food-serving premises are scored on a scale of zero to five.
• Zero means urgent improvement is necessary while five indicates full compliance with the law.
• The 800 lowest scorers come from a total of more than 14,300 premises, so represent only 7% of the total.
• Overall, 38% of premises display their ratings for customers.
What scores on the doors mean
0 Urgent improvement necessary
(eg. imminent and serious risk to public health such as very poor food hygiene practices, almost total non-compliance with structural requirements, no evidence of food safety management)
1 Major improvement necessary
(eg. major and widespread non-compliance, widespread and significant risks to public health, poor standard of hygiene)
2 Improvement necessary
(eg. some major non-compliance, some significant risks to public health, inadequate implementation of control measures required to prevent cross-contamination)
3 Generally satisfactory
(eg. evidence of some non-compliances that are not critical to food safety, generally satisfactory food safety, standards being maintained or improving)
(eg. very good with only some minor non-compliances not critical to food safety, no risks identified in regards to public health, only minor lapses in food hygiene and only minor repairs needed)
5 Very good
(eg. meeting or exceeding legal requirements, no risk to public health, all measures in place to prevent cross-contamination, no repairs needed, food safety management in place)
12 premises given a zero rating
175-177 Ormeau Road, Belfast
14-18 Botanic Avenue, Belfast
1-5 Royal Avenue, |Belfast
29 High Street, Belfast, BT1 2AA
33 Main Street, Ballyclare Co Antrim
87 Kinelowen Street, Keady Co Armagh
22 Dunbarton Street, |Gilford, Co Down
Private address, Co Down
47 Main Street, Feeny
15 The Square, Crossmaglen, Newry
47 Dundalk Street, |Newtownhamilton
Castle Garden Restaurant
2 Castle Park Avenue, Bangor, BT20 4BT