Food service food safety failures made public in Sydney; public benefits

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning – this being Sunday morning in Australia – has a huge feature on the effects of the New South Wales state Food Authority taking a more, uh, vigilant approach to restaurant inspections.

The newspaper concludes that 40 per cent of all restaurants, takeaways and other food businesses in NSW were caught breaching one or more of the critical food handling practices when first visited by an inspector.

That may not be an entirely fair representation. Lots of places have at least one critical violation, and in the U.S., how a critical violation is defined can differ from state-to-state, and even county-to-county. There needs to be some sort of control or comparative group to determine whether that number is high or not.

But it sure sounds gross.

Inspection rates are woefully inadequate in some local councils, and there is often a lack of follow-up.

Anna Cenfi, part-owner of the Belli Bar, got it right when she said inspections conducted in the past few months were more thorough than in previous years, but that she had received three letters warning that a food safety inspection was imminent.

"I think that warning people that they are coming to inspect is ridiculous. They should just spot check everyone, even if it’s just once a year. I’m not worried for myself but I know a lot of dodgy places out there."

Journalist Mathew Moore does clearly state that whatever the limitations, “making this information public we can now expect improvements in standards that transparency and public scrutiny of government information can bring. The Food Authority deserves praise for releasing this information and giving the public far more data than it can get in any other state. It’s an important addition to the name and shame list … With its website and release of the statewide data, NSW has gone further than any other state.

“Yet it still lags behind many cities in Britain and the US, where the results of every restaurant inspection are posted online. New York City even allows consumers to search restaurants according to their number of violation points.

“Governments there have learnt what the NSW Government is now only beginning to realise; there are major public health benefits in shining a public light into the kitchens of every food business that serves the public.”