Three days ago I wrote about accidentally eating at a restaurant that had previously been prosecuted for serious food hygiene offences. I want to be able to make informed choices about where I eat, and that requires transparent access to the available information and accountability on the part of those who hold that information.
Food hygiene is primarily the responsibility of local governments in Victoria, though the state government could play a significant role in this area if only it chose to act in the interest of public health rather than protecting private businesses and their owners.
Take their ‘Food Safety News‘ page, where the current issue of the PDF newsletter is August 2008. Yes, really. It’s September 2010 now. Would you trust this government to do anything worthwhile?
A screen capture of www.health.vic.gov.au/foodsafety/news.htm made on 15 September 2010
In its usual ‘too little too late’ management style of public interest issues, the Victorian government is slowly and reluctantly improving its management of food hygiene. Last year it was announced that it would publish a NSW style website to name and shame offending businesses.
The Victorian register of convictions is now live and at the time of writing it lists only 2 prosecutions of one business. In reality the Victorian site will be nothing like the NSW site, which publishes the details of every minor inspection infringement and fine, such as this $330 fine for failing to maintain hand washing facilities.
The difference between individual offences and prosecutions is stark. The NSW Food Authority reports that:
As the NSW numbers show, thousands of individual offences occur yet few businesses are successfully prosecuted in court. The Victorian site will only publish information on restaurants prosecuted in court, which is fundamentally inadequate.
It’s all about informed choice and improving public health. When I first arrived in Melbourne and was earning very little working in publishing in fashionable Carlton, I ate regularly at Thresherman’s, because the food was cheap and plentiful (if not very good).
More recently, it was fined over $20,000 for multiple offences. Their customers (mostly students from the nearby University of Melbourne) deserve to know this, and if they desert the business and it collapses it would be a sweet example of consumer empowerment. Hayley and Elle may want to edit their reviews accordingly.
Hospitality magazine commented recently that:
Public awareness cannot be left to depend on the media’s spasmodic reporting of warnings, fines and penalties. This is too haphazard a means of raising alertness to the dangers that lurk within—and tends to let the fringe operators escape the only penalty that counts: customer boycotts of their services and their products.
The double whammy of naming and shaming is the only way to go. The neatly phrased “scores on doors” scheme and the NSW Food Authority’s register of offenders should not exist only within that state’s borders but be applied from coast to coast.
Last year I made an FOI request to the City of Yarra in an attempt to force the publication of food hygiene inspections in Fitzroy. My strategy was based on previous efforts in NSW. I was partially successful in forcing the release of a lot of data, but the council would not release the names of the offending businesses.
The FOI blog Open and shut comments on the significant changes in the management of food hygiene made in NSW in recent years. The Victorian government still has a long way to go, and has no excuse for not adopting all the practices proving so effective in NSW.
The age of secrecy is over. Accountability and transparency are now fundamental consumer expectations.