Column October 27, 2010: Sighing tonight

I WAS walking down the road, idly wondering what would happen if somebody was killed in a crash because he slowed down to look at a pavement floral tribute to somebody else killed in a crash. Whose floral tribute would have precedence? And would the incident be ironic, coincidental or merely unfortunate?

As these thoughts whirled around, I was distracted by a notice in the window of a fish and chip shop.

The scrap between two sets of families over the positioning of a teddy bear going on inside my head dissolved immediately.

The sign read: “Four-star hygiene certificate.”

I looked around. Yes, it was the only sign in the window. Now, keen students of marketing will be aware of the concept of the USP, the unique selling point – the one thing that makes one’s widget or establishment stand out among all the others.

The owner of this fish and chip shop had probably looked at his vast array of pies, savoury cakes and sausages and addressed his staff, saying: “I need to know what will get people in here. We need something that will make us stand out.”

And one of his employees, an idealistic sort, probably said: “I know, boss. You know when we ask the customer if they want salt and vinegar…?”

“Yes,” said the owner.

“Well, we could be the only chip shop actually to listen to the customer when they say no and not put it on automatically.”

“No, that won’t work . . . Wait, I’ve got it!” said the owner. “We’ve got a mop!”

Why didn’t he go the whole hog? He could have put up a sign reading, “We run a tight ship here. If you eat here, you are very unlikely to die or even be sick.

“Have a look around the kitchen. You won’t see green potatoes. Our cooks don’t strap cod to their feet and pretend they are roller skates before chucking them in the fryer. We don’t put anthrax in the mushy peas, not even by accident.”

I felt a tremendous sense of pride in my country, that a chip-shop owner could think this, not food quality, not healthy eating, would be the prime concern of a sufficient number of people and be correct.

But then I realised that I don’t even know what a four-star hygiene certificate is, as I am not an environmental health officer.

It sounds good, which is presumably why they are advertising it, but what is the maximum number of stars? If it is five, then buying an open tray of chips with curry sauce starts to look like a riskier proposition.

On the other hand, if four is the maximum and there is a fish and chip shop down the road which does chicken balti pies, but is only three stars, one might consider it worth the (probably) 25% risk of death.

That’s up to you in David Cameron’s Big Society, where health and safety are optional. Eric Pickles would probably shake your hand, partly to congratulate you for sticking one to the Nanny State, but mostly to get close enough to snaffle your pie.

It was all very confusing. I have enough to worry about in my life without playing Russian roulette with battered scallops and saveloys. How could I be sure a trip to the chippy wouldn’t kill me?

And then I came up with my idea. There should be a floral tribute outside each fish and chip shop for every case of food poisoning (fatal or otherwise) traced back to it.

The more flowers outside the shop, the more rank inside the shop. That is a simple system that everybody can understand.

And if a drunk trips over the flowers on a post-pub jaunt to the chip shop and cracks his head open on the pavement, we’ll find out the answer to the question of precedence. Everybody wins.

Now, who fancies rock salmonella and chips?

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