From the outside, many look spotless. But behind the counter it can be a different story altogether. Julie Jacobson digs up the dirt on the dozens of restaurants and food outlets failing to meet basic food hygiene standards.

Key Points:

The owners of dozens of dirty and unlicensed food outlets are facing prosecution after a crackdown by public health officials in Auckland.

Of the 70 outlets netted in a recent clampdown one was so badly infested with cockroaches that inspectors described it as "revolting", while 68 were operating without licences.

And in an undercover sting by TV3 consumer programme Target, a city kebab store was caught selling food contaminated with faecal coliforms.

A Herald on Sunday survey of council rankings found at least 60 outlets in the wider Auckland region had the lowest, E-grade hygiene certificates.

The most common reasons for an E grade? Filthy premises or bug or rodent infestation.

Auckland City environmental health team leader Carole Simpson said the clampdown was a wake-up call for the owners.

Ditching good hygiene practices was often seen as the easiest way to make ends meet in a highly competitive market, but did nothing for consumer confidence, she said.

None of the staff at the outlet where cockroaches were found had any hygiene training. The outlet was a major health risk, she said.

"It was in quite a state. It was revolting."

She said outlets with an E grade were usually closed down and forced to clean up their act before being allowed to re-open. Once they did re-open they retained their E grade for a year "because basically we have no confidence in them".

The unlicensed premises found during the crackdown included takeaway bars, cafes and restaurants.

To comply with food regulations, outlets must register with local authorities and display a hygiene grading certificate in a prominent place. Unregistered premises cannot be forced to close down, but can be prosecuted under council bylaws for trading illegally.

A licensing blitz on the North Shore earlier this month also unearthed some dodgy practices.

Inspectors there found several lower-graded outlets either not displaying certificates or displaying expired, higher-grade certificates. In one case a certificate was displayed but the grading had been deliberately covered up.

While the offenders had since been "named and shamed" in a local paper, it was likely several prosecutions would follow, said council environmental health team leader Duffy Visser.

"Having their names published is a consequence by itself. We are doing follow-up visits to ensure that they do not continue to not display the certificates.

"If they continue to not comply, then prosecution will be an option."

Visser said there were no E-graded outlets in the city but pointed out that even places with A gradings might not fully comply with all food hygiene regulations.

"In fact I would only eat at premises with an A grading.

"It's fairly easy to get an A. Bs are probably okay, but once you get to a C there's quite a lot of things wrong. They are getting to be pretty grubby by that stage."

Dining out in Wellington can be something of a hit-and-miss affair as well.

Whereas other councils consider hygiene grading to be public information and post it on their websites - Waitakere's list is updated daily - Wellington, which prides itself on being the "cafe capital", doesn't.

When asked why not, we were told it was because each of the city's 1385 food outlets reached the required standards.

A spokesman said the council had three rankings, with almost a third of its eateries graded "very good" or "excellent". The rest were "ungraded", a rating given to premises at the lower end of the scale, or for the 12 months following a change of ownership.

Despite that, however, 26 "cleansing notices" had been issued in the past 12 months, for what were described only as ranging "from telling a restaurant to close down to a restaurant not having a nail brush on the handbasin [a legal requirement]".

In Wellington, only places rated "excellent" are issued with hygiene certificates.

New Zealand's food poisoning rates have been described by the Food Safety Authority as "alarming". Our campylobacter rate is three times that of Australia and twice that of Britain, and it's estimated commercial food premises account for at least 50 per cent of all food poisoning cases. Restaurants and cafes are the worst offenders, followed by takeaways, caterers, supermarkets and delicatessans.

Horrifyingly, a hidden camera sting on 11 fast food outlets around Auckland by undercover actors for TV3's Target programme back that up.

Production manager Juanita Dobson said burgers or kebabs containing chicken, a common source food poisoning, were bought by the actors and tested for the presence of potentially dangerous bacteria, including campylobacter and faecal coliforms, and rated on their aerobic plate count, high levels of which indicate contamination.

"Faecal coliforms were found in one kebab and one takeaway bar didn't even cook the food we ordered - they picked it up from next door."

Three others lied about their food hygiene grade. Statistics just released by ESR's public health surveillance team make for sober reading, with reported cases of campylobactor (926), gastroenteritis (45) and salmonella (126) all up on the previous month's figures. Half of the 86 cases of cryptosporidium reported eating at a cafe or restaurant.

Regionally, Waitemata reported the highest number of cases of campylobactor, with 121, followed by Auckland, 106, Capital and Coast (Wellington) 91, Counties Manukau 95 and Waikato, 85.

Waikato led the way in the salmonella stakes, with 18 cases reported in May. Auckland had 15 and Wellington 13.

Ratings losers

Premises given an E grade in the six months to June 2007.

Avondale: T&A Superette

Central city: Queen Restaurant, Coral Reef Chinese Restaurant, Red Lantern Steam Pot City, Twin Dragon

Mt Albert: L & W Restaurant

Mt Eden: Free World BBQ

Mt Roskill: Halal Fried Chicken, Krishna Krupa Takeaways, Tofu Shop Ltd

Newton: Cuisine India, Jun Joo Restaurant, The Owl Bar

Onehunga: Lucky Horse Takeaway

Otahuhu: 303 Cafe, Chaska Punjab Da, Dayal's Dairy, Malaysian Noodles, Moshims Discount House, Nice Food Centre, Shan Foods and Spices, T&A Superette.

Panmure: Panmure Mini Mart

Sandringham: AMT Budget Foods

Henderson: Chinese Dumpling Garden, KK Kitchen

Te Atatu Peninsula: Mama's Minimart, Peppermint Twist

Whenuapai: Livingstone's Licensed Cafe

Manukau Botony-Clevedon: Clevedon Dairy, Clevedon Takeaway, Namaste Impex

Angelos Roast, The Cave Coffee Lounge,

Otara: Capital Takeaway, Dawson Chinese Takeaway, Double Dragon Takeaways, Fiji's Own (NZ) Ltd, Gilbert Rd Superette, Golden King Takeaways, Lucky Wong BBQ King, Lyn's Bakery, Otara Hot Bread, Pickles on Botany, Shop N Save, Sunrise Polynesian Takeaways, Supa Value, (East Tamaki Rd), Tradewinds Tavern, Win Diner, Youngs Lunchbar

Pakuranga: Cascades Fruit and Vege Market

Papatoetoe: Carruth Road Bakery, Sawad-D-Thai, Sunflower Bakery, Sweet Taste of India Ltd, Tasty Hot Bread Shop, Valley Fruit, Vegetable and Spice

Horse hobbled

It wasn't a plague of pests but cooktops caked with gunge that saw Onehunga's Lucky Horse Take-away closed down for a day earlier this year.

Unfortunately for owner Eric Chang the grubby burners have also led to a humiliating outing on Auckland's worst eateries list, posted for everyone to see on the city council's website.

And under food hygiene regulations Lucky Horse will be stuck with the E grading slapped on it for at least another year. When spoken to by the Herald on Sunday at the Symonds St takeaway last week, Chang was busily filling lunch orders for customers, most of whom would have been blissfully unaware of the poor hygiene rating.

He was upset about the bust, but accepted that cleaning in the shop hadn't been up to scratch.

"There was a problem. It wasn't much and it's been fixed ... there's not a lot I can do about the rating."

Otahuhu's Nice Food Centre was also listed on the council website as having an E Grade certificate. Its manager, who did not give his name, said the takeaway had had higher gradings in the past but it was a small business and staff were often busy when health inspectors visited.

"It's very difficult to keep up with things when you are busy. Sometimes all it takes is leaving a lid off a container," he said.

Over in Otara, staff at Lyn's Bakery appeared surprised when contacted about their E rating. Said one: "No, no we have an A rating. That must have been from last year..." Council records show the bakery received the grading in February this year.

The gradings - what they mean:
Gold A: I'll have some more of that. Achieving a high level of compliance with food hygiene rules. Grade A: Yes please. High level of compliance.

Grade B: Ho-hum. Moderate level of compliance.

No Grade C.

Grade D: Maybe not. Not achieving satisfactory levels of compliance.

Grade E: Er, no thanks. Serious problems.

Excellent: Same as Auckland's Gold A grading (rated 4/5 or 5/5 in each of four assessment categories).

Very Good: Equivalent to a Grade A (rated 3/5 in each category).

Ungraded: Everything else.