Last month Newshub revealed four restaurants had received E grades and 24 had received D grades from Auckland Council between December 1 and March 9 for failing to meet the requirements.
Revolting photos from the inspections showed one outlet with piles of what appeared to be uncooked seafood left uncovered while it was stored. Other images showed cockroaches scuttling on walls, fly-encrusted pest control paper and floors covered in a thick coating of grease and filth.
It's an ongoing issue - despite regular inspections and media attention, restaurants continue to get D and E gradings. Newshub looks at what's going on - and is the system working?
How does the food grade system work?
The Food Act 2014 introduced a national system for food safety and made the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) the chief regulatory body.
However it did not require food businesses to display public information about their registration or verification status, such as a certificate, nor has MPI developed the nationwide grading system for food outlets that it's empowered to.
In response, Auckland Council adopted the Food Safety Bylaw 2013 requiring certain food businesses to display a food grade for the public to see.
This food grade was delivered by the 'Eatsafe Auckland' food safety grading scheme, an operational initiative developed by the council's Environmental Health Unit. When businesses are verified under the Food Act audit process, their food grade is based on the verification score.
What do the grades mean?
The grades assess eateries against the quality and hygiene requirements of the Food Act, looking at process control, environmental control, food safety behaviour, confidence in management and compliance history.
A spokesperson for Auckland Council told Newshub D grades are given when a business needs to improve but it isn't a critical risk.
"A D grade means that faults that are not a critical risk to food safety were found on the premises and intervention by a food safety officer was required."
E grades are issued to businesses with critical food safety risks.
"When a critical risk to food safety is found, the business will immediately close and will reopen when the critical food safety risk has been addressed," they said.
"For example, if a food business is found to have an extensive cockroach infestation, it will not be permitted to reopen, unless the cockroach infestation has been satisfactorily mitigated."
Mervyn Chetty, Auckland Council manager environmental health, told Newshub that in general "pest infestations are of greatest concern".
"Food outlets should follow their food control plan, which provides information and procedures to ensure regular checks for pests or conditions that may give rise to pests, and take the appropriate action where they find any signs or indications of pests or conditions favourable to pests."
'Concerns about poor food safety practices in Auckland'
In 2019 the Council released its review into the Food Safety Bylaw 2013 ahead of its expiry and subsequent replacement by the Food Safety Information Bylaw 2020.
The findings report noted this 2013 bylaw had been introduced due to concerns over "unhygienic or unsafe premises being operated" and "high levels of food poisoning arising from food sold by food premises".
And the review found concern about poor food safety practices at Auckland food businesses continuing to occur.
"In total there were 2188 Auckland Council requests for service (RFS) 37 about food safety concerns for the period 1 July 2017 to 30 April 2019," the report stated.
"This included 2776 separate food safety concerns, with multiple concerns for some food businesses. As an illustration of the scale of concern, this would equate to a request for service for 19 percent of the current 11,367 business sites registered in the Auckland region.
"Common concerns include unregistered businesses, food safety, pests, cleanliness and foreign materials The top food safety concerns identified in request for service data are unregistered or incompliant food businesses, unsafe food and pest activity."
The most common pests identified in RFS data were cockroaches (33 percent), flies (22 percent), rats or mice (17 percent) and birds (16 percent). The most common foreign materials found in food were maggots (12 percent) and cockroaches, hair and flies (each 11 percent).
What do restaurants say?
One restauranter, who did not want to be named, said there's more to running a restaurant than just cooking.
"People can get into trouble because they don't follow the paperwork and documentation requirements," he told Newshub.
These include the record-keeping required by the compulsory food control plan, such as detailing cleaning schedules, staff training records, and keeping regular fridge and freezer temperature records. A 'Simply Safe and Suitable' food control plan template document provided by the Ministry of Primary Industries runs 122 pages long.
He told Newshub other reasons can include staffing issues, time and money issues and language issues and cultural issues. But he emphasised that there's "no excuse" for a D or E grade.
"This is for the public's safety. If you can't follow the rules, you shouldn't be open."
Some of the images provided to Newshub from restaurant inspections show more than just a failure to keep accurate records - they show astounding levels of filth.
"Frankly some people just don't give a f*** about food safety," the restauranter explained. "They need to be closed down."
But with their livelihoods on the line, some say their ratings are unfair.
Last year a cafe earned a D grade after inspectors found sparrows inside eating crumbs.
"They were in the shop - we have a lot of windows and doors... eating breadcrumbs," the shop owner told Stuff.
"Council said we needed to control them, and we have. We are going to appeal our grade soon."
A popular burger joint in Ponsonby warned it too would appeal after it was given D grade, with the manager saying they were unstaffed and busy and didn't have time to clean properly before inspectors visited.
And a 2018 D grade saw a bar - also in Ponsonby - demanding a "fair review" to get their A grade back.
"I wasn't here when Auckland Council did the check, I don't know what happened," the manager said.
"I could lose my business, this is serious. I just want a fair review."
Gradings improving over time
Last year the council adopted the Food Safety Information Bylaw 2020, which aims to give Aucklanders more certainty about food safety by requiring businesses to display their food grade online.
Regulatory Committee chair Councillor Linda Cooper said at the time the new bylaw will help keep the public safe from foodborne illness - and pointed out gradings were getting better over time.
"Over time, we have seen improvements in the number of A food grades issued to food businesses. Last year 89 percent of those verified by the council received an A grade."
These improvements are welcome news considering the lows to which the city had once sunk.
A 2007 NZ Herald report found "at least 60 outlets in the wider Auckland region had the lowest, E-grade hygiene certificates".
Inspections in 2018 just between January and May gave 28 places around the city an E grade while 42 food establishments received a D grade.
This has since fallen, with a request for figures last year finding four restaurants received E gradings and 25 received D grades from Auckland Council between December 1 and January 20 for filthy scenes.
And the most recent figures revealed four restaurants received E grades and 24 received D grades from between December 1 and March 9 for failing to have their outlets up to scratch.
Council staff said this fall could be due to them spending more time verifying eateries were carrying out the correct processes and procedures, for example cleaning schedules, and explaining changes to regulations.
"Grading is a good motivation for good businesses. Often businesses that are issued low grades always come back and maintain a good grade after that," Auckland Council team leader for food safety and health Alan Ahmu told Stuff.