In 2008 I started writing about food hygiene standards in restaurants and why local and state governments should do more to inform ratepayers and consumers about which food businesses pass or fail health inspections so people can make informed decisions about where to eat.
In May 2009 I initiated a campaign to get the City of Yarra to publish the details of its food hygiene inspections on its website. Despite a formal freedom of information (FOI) request and a subsequent appeal to the Victorian Ombudsman, this failed. All I got was some data that had all the business names removed.
Although I didn’t know it at the time (because the content on the City of Yarra’s old website was so badly organised finding things was close to impossible), the City of Yarra began publishing a quarterly ‘Food News’ report aimed at food businesses in March 2009. I only found this last week. I don’t know if it has been there since the current City of Yarra site went live in 2010 or not.
While this publication is better than nothing, it is fundamentally inadequate. First, it locks away information in separate PDF documents that should be collated and updated in a single page on their website (the same way that the state government’s register of convictions is formatted). Second, the information is aimed at businesses when it should also be aimed at the public, and given a prominent place in the website where consumers will find it.
Third, Food News is deficient in that it sometimes names the businesses prosecuted, and sometimes not (business owners may plead guilty and be found guilty of an offence, and be fined, but have no conviction recorded). The business owners who have no conviction recorded against them are not named by the City of Yarra and are therefore not listed in the state government register (local governments supply the data to the state Health Department).
The lenient approach of the Magistrate’s Court in repeatedly not recording convictions means that the state effectively acts to protect guilty businesses and perpetuate the suffering of innocent consumers.
Finally, the City of Yarra’s Food News combines food hygiene information with information about not selling tobacco to minors, which is a separate business issue that has nothing to do with food. This should have its own page on the website.
Like the state government’s register of food hygiene convictions, the City of Yarra only publishes details of businesses that have been prosecuted in court. These are the very worst offenders, who have failed numerous food hygiene inspections, which is what finally pushes the council to prosecute them.
Some of the Fitzroy food businesses that have closed down (at least partially) due to poor food hygiene include:
- Smith St bakery (near Woolworths) – prosecution reported in May 2009 – closed approx December 2011
- Yume Japanese restaurant on Brunswick St – prosecution reported September 2012 – closed approx September 2011
Businesses still trading:
- Tandoori Times on Gertrude St – prosecution reported in May 2010 – negatively reviewed by me in April 2011
As I’ve said before, knowledge informs choices. If I know that a restaurant has been prosecuted for serious food hygiene failings, I will choose not to eat there. It is unconscionable for the City of Yarra to prevent public access to this information. It is a failure to provide a duty of care.
As at 28 October 2012, the most recent conviction recorded in the register is for 14 June 2012. There seems to be a delay here. The City of Yarra reported in its September 2012 Food News (385kb PDF) that Yume Japanese restaurant on Brunswick St Fitzroy was prosecuted and forced to close. The PDF was made on 11 September. Why is this not listed in the register on 28 October? It seems to me that someone is not doing their job, and I’d like to know who.
By the time Yume was forced to close, it had failed numerous inspections while people were eating food prepared on surfaces covered in rodent faeces. Why should we have to put up with that? When a business is forced to close it should be required to post this information in its window and the council should publish the same information on its website.
Food hygiene inspections are paid for by our rates. We pay the City of Yarra to undertake this work for our safety. We pay for the information to be collected and we own it. We should be able to demand unrestricted access to our intellectual property. This is another example of terrible customer service from the City of Yarra and the state government.
I want a ‘scores on doors’ approach where every inspection result is public knowledge. If a restaurant has failed an inspection and then the follow-up, that means its managers are lazy, indifferent or incompetent and don’t care about my health. I want the power to be able to avoid these places, but local and state governments prefer to keep ratepayers and taxpayers in uncomfortable ignorance.
If I get food poisoning at a cafe and later learn that the cafe had failed a food hygiene inspection around the time I got sick, I should be able to sue the local government responsible for monitoring their hygiene practices for failing to inform me of the problem, which would have allowed me to avoid consuming their contaminated food.