What's The Grossest Fast Food Chain?

By James O Malley on at

This article was originally posted on 30th October 2017, but in the light of the "KFC Crisis" we thought you might like to be reminded about what substitute fast food eateries to avoid. Spoiler: pretty much all other fried chicken shops. Sorry.

There’s an ad campaign running at the moment for McDonald’s, in which rather than tell us directly how tasty it thinks its food is, it is instead telling us how not-disgusting it is. Chicken McNuggets, the ad points out, don’t contain “bits” - beaks and parts of the chicken, and so on.

It perhaps speaks to the ubiquity of the Golden Arches on our high streets. Everyone already knows McDonald’s, and has probably eaten there before - so the challenge for the marketers is whether it can detoxify its brand. After all, fast food - perhaps unfairly - has a reputation for being made of not particularly high quality materials, in not particularly the highest quality environments.

And this made us wonder: is McDonald’s really that gross? Can we measure how disgusting a fast-food restaurant is? And if we think McDonald’s is grim… what about some of the other chains?

Today, Gizmodo UK can reveal, in an act of important data journalism, which well-known high street chains are the most disgusting - and we can confirm that yes, your preconceptions are right: those grim-looking Fried Chicken shops in South London probably are the worst.

So how can we measure grossness? One option is to use information collected by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and local authority food safety inspectors.

You know the green stickers in the window of restaurants with a score on? These are scores given by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). And brilliantly, this means that we can quantify exactly how grim different restaurants are. A “5” rating is the best possible - and remember, this means that the food was prepared hygienically - this isn’t like Michelin stars. And a big fat zero is the worst.

So what could these lower scores actually entail? To find out, we requested the actual reports for a few different outlets. For example, the KFC in Penrith - the lowest-ranked KFC in the country at the time we downloaded the data - was given a score of one. In the inspector’s report, it notes that sinks were not working, a drain was blocked and that the premises needed a “thorough deep clean”.

A zero rating, by the look of it, could conceivably be even worse. The branch of Subway on Granby Street in Leicester was given a big slap by Leicester City Council’s inspectors because it had a cockroach problem. According to the report under the servery they found three insect traps that contained a “large number” of live and dead German cockroaches - and the cockroaches represented “all life cycles of the cockroach from newly hatched Nymphs to fully grown adults and egg bearing females”. Cockroaches were also spotted running down the back of the counter, and on the surface behind the coffee machine and in several other places. Oh, and they found some rat droppings too. The good news then is the council actually forced Subway to close for several days to sort the problem out, and the branch is fine again now.

In essence then, this FSA collated data gives us a good snapshot on which we can judge just how gross a chain is. We might not be able to figure out exactly what ingredients go into a Chicken McNugget - but we can definitely tell if it was prepared hygienically.

Brilliantly, the FSA offers up this top-line data as open data. So I downloaded data on over half a million establishments around the country and got to work.

The plan is simple: take all of the outlets from different well known chains, and average them out - which should give us a broad indication of that chain’s grossness.

Boring Methodological Caveats

As with any big study that makes big claims, we need to put a few caveats on the data and our results. You can skip this if you just want to look at interesting charts - but here’s details on just how we parsed the nuances in the data.

For example, some local authorities don’t use a 0-5 grading system. So any outlets using a different system have not been included as it would be impossible to compare.

Similarly, because all of the data is submitted by local authorities, chains are not viewed as chains but as individual restaurants. So when it came to grouping together, say, all McDonald’s outlets, we’ve had to simply do a text search (so including restaurants listed as being called “McDonald’s” or “McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd”, “McDonald’s Drive Thru” and so on). We then did a manual pass over each list to spot any obviously erroneous entries: McDonald’s Farm is just a same-name coincidence, for example. It’s conceivable that we could have missed a handful of outlets from each chain if they’re operated as a franchise, as “Joe Bloggs Ltd’ wouldn’t show up in the search - but judging by most of the results, local authorities tended to also include trading names (“Joe Bloggs Ltd t/a McDonalds”) - meaning they would show up.

In terms of selecting which chains to compare, we think we got a good selection of the big ones. The only one that is missing, which is slightly annoying, is the chain Eat. This is because the word “eat”, appears in countless other outlet names - and given the fuzziness of the naming data described above, I’m not confident that actual Eat outlets could be easily identified.

And one final caveat: the FSA dataset we used is updated every 24 hours - we downloaded our list a couple of weeks ago. And in any case, it appears that some specific listings are not updated massively regularly. We requested more detailed food inspector reports for some of the worst offending outlets - and discovered that since achieving a particularly bad score, they have been inspected again and given a good score.

So the data here obviously isn’t carved in stone - but it should give us the general thrust of just how disgusting or clean each chain is.

To cut a long, boring methodology short: again, it doesn’t appear there’s any systematic biases in taking data like this (it isn’t like the FSA specifically chose to grade bad branches with a different system), so we’ve got as many outlets as possible for each for analysis.


Results: Which Brand Has The Lowest Ratings?

So which chain is the most hygienic and which is the grossest, according to the FSA’s food hygiene ratings?

Top marks go to the newcomers: Posh McDonald’s challengers Five Guys came out on top. Across 56 branches nationwide, they scored an average of 4.9643 - with no outlets ranked below a four.

Next is another middle class staple: Pret A Manger, which similarly has no branches ranked below a 4, across its 298 locations, and scores 4.9597.

McDonald’s actually comes out of this analysis well too. Despite having 921 outlets around the country, it has a score of 4.9511. This is better than its most direct competitors: Burger King and KFC, which score slightly lower. In terms of scores, KFC has four outlets rated with a 1 - and Burger King has one. (And we’re not alone in being surprised to learn there are more KFCs than Burger King restaurants, right?).

Greggs - which has about 1.5x as many outlets as McDonald’s, and Subway, which has twice as many and is Britain’s most ubiquitous fast food outlet, score slightly lower on average than the Golden Arches. Wimpy, the former British icon that is now a shadow of its former self, scored 4.4143.

The lowest scoring outlets in this survey then are some much smaller chains - all of which serve fried chicken. Chicken Cottage scores just 3.5 - 9% of its outlets included in this survey score just one point out of five on the FSA’s ratings scale. Dixy Chicken, and South London staple Morleys, scored similarly poorly on average, with 3.2766 and 2.955 respectively. Amazing, both Morleys and Dixy both have 12 outlets each that score one - and one outlet each that gets a big fat zero. Ouch.

The worst performing chain in this survey, with a score of just 2.6491, was a chain called Perfect Fried Chicken. What’s annoying about this chain is that it is actually very hard to work out exactly whether it is a chain or not. Whereas we’re pretty certain that if someone opened an independent fast food restaurant called “McDonald’s”, they’d have the McDonald’s Corporation breathing down their necks within seconds - can we make this assumption about PFC?

The web presence is wildly inconsistent, with no central listing of outlets that we can check against. Having checked a number of outlets on Google Streetview, branding at each is also somewhat inconsistent - though many include the same chicken symbol, which at one point someone did attempt to trademark.

So our assumption, then, is that these restaurants all calling themselves Perfect Fried Chicken are part of the same chain - which would also explain why so many are concentrated around North and East London.

This especially isn’t a good look when you see how the distribution of individual scores shakes out. PFC’s competitors - including Five Guys, which has a similar number of outlets - are able to make a much higher proportion of their restaurants top scorers.

Seeing this plotted on a chart showing the number of branches versus average score is perhaps even more striking. The bigger chains, it seems, are the more hygienic.

I’d speculate the reason behind this is something that might sound counter-intuitive: It’s one of the benefits of globalisation. Yes, in theory everyone prefers dining at independent outlets, as they feel more authentic, but enforcing hygiene standards consistently requires the cold, impersonal hand of a mega-corporation. This would also explain why McDonald’s - which is well known for operating on a franchise basis - is also able score high. And in the case of Five Guys, though it only has 56 outlets (at least in this study), it is part of a much larger American chain.

So now we know. Next time you’re in the mood for some fried chicken, probably at 1 in the morning after a night out - remember that the Perfect Fried Chicken name has six outlets scoring just one point, and six scoring a big fat zero, at least at the time our snapshot data was downloaded. Oh dear.

Gizmodo UK apologises for making you newly obsessed with the FSA rating stickers when eating out. But it isn’t weird if we’re all paranoid about them, right?

James O’Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.