WHILE Monmouthshire has been dubbed Wales' food capital for its quality restaurants, a new scheme could see the industry in neighbouring Blaenau Gwent take the crown for food hygiene.

With high quality establishments such as The Foxhunter, Nant-y-Derry, The Crown at Whitebrook and Abergavenny's The Hardwick and The Walnut Tree, food critics have lauded Monmouthshire's eateries.

But, while these restaurants score highly in the eyes of foodies and critics, a new hygiene rating scheme could drastically alter people's perceptions of where are the best places to eat.

Since last year, Wales has had a voluntary 'scores on the doors system', where businesses can display their hygiene rating- which is given following unannounced visits from local authority officers and marked on a scale of zero to five.

This move, however, was questioned by business leaders, who said it didn't go far enough, as eateries with low scores were under no obligation to show their scores- putting people at risk of eating under or badly-prepared food.

Ministers last week unanimously backed the Food Hygiene Rating Bill which will force places that serve food- from restaurants, cafes, pubs, burger vans, school canteens, rugby clubs and sweet shops- to display their rating.

While it won't affect Monmouthshire's top eateries, which all score highly, it does offer an alternative view on where the best places to get food in Gwent are.

Local authority officers visit premises and carry out inspections before ratings are awarded, with Blaenau Gwent's giving nearly half (47.7 per cent) of their eateries the highest rating of five and none the lowest rating of zero.

This was far higher than any other Gwent local authority, with 34.88 per cent of Torfaen's, 29.7 per cent of Monmouthshire's, 27 per cent of Caerphilly's and 22.6 per cent of Newport's eateries getting the highest rating of five.

Overall, there aren't many places in Gwent that have been given the rock bottom zero grade, with just 15 out of 3,584 assessed given the score.

Health minister Lesley Griffiths said Wales can be proud of the way it has tackled hygiene and the new law will help drive up standards.

She said: "The scheme will enable consumers to make a more informed choice about where they choose to eat or shop for food, while good food hygiene means a higher rating which is good for business."

When the law becomes an act, hygiene ratings will have to be displayed in a prominent position or businesses will face a fine, a move that has been questioned by the Federation of Small Businesses.

FSB Wales spokesman Iestyn Davies said the voluntary scheme is already working, adding: "Why not reward those who go the extra mile with a simple pass/fail system?"

Wayne Cheshire has worked in the food industry in Blackwood for 25 years, firstly as a butcher and now running Caesar's Cafe and he gave a cautious welcome to the move.

Caesar's was given the prestigious five, rating and Mr Cheshire said: "We really had to work at it and it took a year, so it's definitely justified. But, I don't think the rating goes far enough as it shows what's safe food, but not quality food."

He described what had to be achieved to get five stars, such as producing a document that lists exactly how all food is prepared. Other requirements include six stages in cleaning tables, such as using sanitisers and detergents.

He said the scheme makes it tougher for places such as kebab houses that keep meat on display for long periods or places that prepare meat with limited shelf life- such as fish- to obtain a high rating.

However, while it addresses how food is cooked, kept and served on site, it doesn't look at quality.

Mr Cheshire said some outlets could buy in ready-packaged food that is "basically excrement in a box", but because they are not responsible for preparing the food on site, it doesn't effect their hygiene rating.

He said this is the big failing of the new hygiene rating system, pointing to some national chains who have been found to have horsemeat in their burgers or sell "Frankenstein chicken breasts, processed and pumped full of preservatives and flavourings".

Mr Cheshire added: "The food hygiene standards are great as if it's not prepared properly, bacteria can kill people. But food quality needs to be addressed as well as people never think that the chicken breast they are buying is not what they think."

Iftekhar Harris has begun serving food at his bar Warehouse 54, Cambrian Road, Newport, and said the system "keeps everyone on their toes".

While Warehouse 54 was given an initial grade of three, he is hopeful that it will soon be raised.

He said: "The new system will get rid of rogue traders. There are things that may appear minor issues like making sure your fridges are at the right temperature or food is cooked at the right temperature, random things that some people don't understand.

"But, the council has been good, working with us and we're looking to get up to five next time."

Butchers will also have to display their ratings, something that could lead to problems for some smaller firms, according to Newport Market-based Mike Turner.

He runs AD Turner and said: "It's a good idea, it will keep everything above board and will make sure everyone cleans and prepares properly without getting complacent. It's just common sense things really and I'd want to know what was wrong if I went to eat somewhere and it had a zero in the window.

"But, it could hit smaller butchers hard, because to get a high rating you have to have cooked and uncooked meats on different counters with different people serving them. We have five staff so can manage this, but it could make things very difficult for those that only have one or two staff."

Other establishments where the requirement to display ratings could have a profound impact is in schools - where the need to provide quality meals to pupils makes high marks essential.

That is why many schools have achieved highly, despite Pontllanfraith Comprehensive headmaster Tim Williams calling the assessments "rigorous".

His school was given the highest five rating and he said: "It is absolutely vital as it sets the right tone in the canteen. We have such a hard-working band of ladies who make hundreds of meals a day and it's nice for the parents to know their children are eating food of the highest standard complimented by the fact it's made in a clean environment."

A spokeswoman for Blaenau Gwent council said that it carries out routine unannounced inspections and re-visits, but tries to help with ratings as much as possible.

She said: "The council carries out advice visits on request and strives to work with businesses wherever appropriate. We aim to achieve high standards of hygiene to protect the public."

So, in future eating out in Gwent may no longer be just about the quality of the food, but how hygienically it was prepared, with Blaenau Gwent currently leading the way in the cleanliness stakes.