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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Our right to know about restaurant hygiene

Matthew Moore’s “Food for thought” article in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald raises an important public right to know issue: whether those who handle the food we eat comply with food hygiene standards. The Herald website shows some quick responses from readers to Moore's article including a comment from an Australian living in Canada that publication of this type of information there is regarded as standard.

I don’t know what those responsible for food standards in Australia think about disclosure of compliance information. Elsewhere in the world there is a growing consensus that food hygiene standards improve when regulators publish information and ratings that inform the public whether a particular restaurant is an A or an E.

This report “Restaurant inspectors urge “scores on doors” shows that in the UK councils in 2004 were planning the public display of hygiene inspections to seek to reduce the 1million food poisoning cases reported each year. Since the commencement of FOI in the UK in January 2005, councils have not sought to refuse access to inspection reports. The “Scores on doors” movement – pro active publication of this type of information without the need for any FOI application – is now running strongly in the UK, (see the results of this Google search) and is supported by bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. It’s been a requirement in California and other states in the US for some time and is currently on the agenda in Chicago.

Pro active publication should be a requirement here. Food standard authorities and councils should get together in an Australian "Scores on doors" initiative.

In its absence there is an interesting test case waiting to happen in the event that an application for this type of information under FOI is refused. There would appear to be a strong public interest in access to information about food hygiene practices in our restaurants and other places where our food is handled.

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