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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Clash of the cockroaches

This latest word from the Sydney Morning Herald - "Secrets of the kitchen a recipe for ignorance" and "Hush hush on hygiene" - shows that even the NSW Ombudsman's Office, can interpret and apply the Freedom of Information Act in a timid fashion when it comes to "the public interest" and the right to know how food inspectors apply the law after inspecting restaurant kitchens.

I think this issue is now one for the food hygiene policy makers - its clear to the experts in many parts of the world that public disclosure has a major potential role in improving compliance with food handling standards. It's also clearly a public right to know issue.

It's apparently not as clear - as yet anyway - to our policy gurus here.


  1. Anonymous12:25 pm

    Just to clarify our position for the information of your readers, the decision of this office was not that there was no public interest in making information about compliance with food hygiene standards public.

    This office recognizes that there is a public interest in ascertaining the hygiene standards of food businesses to enable informed choice of restaurants and food providers. But in this case, as is required under the FOI Act, we balanced this interest with the likelihood of unreasonable detriment to the food businesses listed on the document to which access was sought. The reason we felt that the likelihood of detriment would be unreasonable in this case, was that the information was primarily of historical interest (as you note in yourarticle over 12 months old). Council’s advice to us (as noted in your article)was that there are no ongoing health issues for the restaurants listed on the document, and the problems for which these businesses had been fined had been resolved.

    Under different factual circumstances, where the information is current, there would be a stronger argument for disclosing the information. What this case indicates, however, is that FOI may not be the most effective way to have this information communicated to the public, particularly as it is not immediate or current. It appears that the access to current information about food hygiene standards is an important issue for policy makers to consider. It may be that implementing a scheme whereby restaurants and food businesses currently in breach of food hygiene standards are reported publicly, or schemes such as those in New Zealand or Toronto where restaurant hygiene ratings are posted in the shop window, might be a more effective way to enable the public to make an informed choice of restaurants and food providers.

    Chris Wheeler
    Deputy Ombudsman

  2. As you will see the comment above was from the Deputy NSW Ombudsman. We both agree on one point - that the policy makers should see the benefit of routine public disclosure of current information about compliance with food handling standards