Update 21 September 2009: reading the 2009 annual report (1.35mb PDF) of the Victorian Ombudsman is fascinating. Consider this statement in relation to this post:

Parliament gives government agencies considerable responsibility to regulate the conduct of individuals and private interests. The community therefore frequently looks to the state to protect the interests of individuals.

This year I received a number of complaints alleging the failure of public sector bodies to protect the interests of the public. Such complaints are prevalent in local government due to its involvement in community matters. The failure of local governments to address the basic concerns of residents amounts to administrative inaction (p20).

There is endemic administrative inaction across Victoria within the state government and local governments concerning food hygiene.

Original post: With all the publicity received by the NSW government for delivering food hygiene transparency to its residents, the Victorian government in its usual way is promising to deliver an insipid inferior version and hopes that the residents of Victoria don’t notice. A name and shame food hygiene site will be set up by the Victorian government next year, but it will only publish information already in the public domain – the details of restaurants who have breached hygiene regulations repeatedly and badly enough to be taken to court.

What we will get in Victoria is based on the WA model. This is pathetic and completely inadequate. In NSW people get access to information about even minor breaches that result in inspection failures, long before repeat offences result in a business being taken to court.

By then it’s already too late from the public’s point of view because the offending restaurants may have been serving them contaminated food for months or even years:

Prosecutions are a last resort, but in some cases when critical failures have occurred or when proprietors have ignored prior warnings, that’s when they’ll end up in court.

We need and deserve to know the results of every inspection and every offence so we can make informed choices about where to eat.

Why local governments / councils cannot be trusted on food hygiene

Because they are basically apology groups for greedy local businesses, they will not pursue the public good of improved public health unless forced to by state governments. In NSW:

Dozens of NSW councils rarely check if food businesses are complying with food laws while many others inspect businesses but take no action where breaches are observed, according to government data providing the first insight into the state of food regulation.

Detailed results of the first batch of information councils have provided to the Food Authority under new laws reveal huge inconsistencies over how councils carry out their responsibilities to ensure restaurants and takeaway businesses are not putting the health of customers at risk.

Some councils inspected most of their food businesses once in the six months after the laws came into effect on July 1 last year. Others, especially in country areas, told the Food Authority they inspected none or hardly any, making dining safety a geographical lucky dip.

For example:

Leichhardt Council is a fine example of why making information public works. For years Leichhardt did only cursory inspections in the heartland of Italian dining and almost never penalised any breaches.

With that state of affairs kept confidential, the arrangement worked fine for everyone – except consumers. Making the information public has put a rocket up the council. It has suddenly increased its rate of inspections from eight in six months to 280 and the number of fines from one to 16. It has also recently sent 100 letters to businesses telling them to lift their game.

The Food Authority deserves praise for releasing this information and giving the public far more data than it can get in any other state.

Why state governments in Victoria and WA cannot be trusted on food hygiene

They do not force councils to report food hygiene inspection data to the state health department. For example, in WA:

Because it is not yet compulsory for councils to report hygiene breaches to the government, only breaches in 11 of WA’s 139 local authorities appear on the government register.

WA Health Minister Kim Hames has put councils on notice, saying all hygiene prosecutions must be added when mandatory reporting is introduced under a new Food Act.

On June 29, a spokesperson for Dr Hames said that the new Act was likely to be proclaimed by July 31.

However, with a third of August already gone and no legislation in place, a Department of Health spokeswoman yesterday said the new laws would now likely take affect before October 31.

This is a simple dereliction of duty.In Victoria the government has released no details about what it expects from local governments in this area. This is the model Victoria should be following:

  • uniform statewide standards for mandatory inspections that all councils must follow
  • mandatory reporting of all data from local councils to the state health department
  • regular publication of all data to allow the public to make informed choices about where to eat
  • prosecution of councils by the state government if they fail to carry out their statutory duty to maintain public health by carrying out required inspections
Victorian local and state governments cannot be trusted on food hygiene

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