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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Another Sydney council comes clean on kitchens

The Sydney Morning Herald today in "Lid blown on hidden food safety breaches" reports about a second Sydney council (this time Woollahra) decision, to release infringement notices issued for food handling offences. The paper has approached each of the businesses concerned and included in the article their responses.

The Herald in an editorial"The other secrets of the kitchen" says that the difficulties in prising this type of information out of the system illustrates an
"obsession with hiding the truth (which) is an Australian phenomenon. The same Sydney diners who are not allowed to know the health record of their local restaurant can find out which restaurants in New York have had trouble with the health authorities, and why, from the New York health Department's website. In Britain, to, freedom of information rules have resulted in the publication of inspection results. It's time this supposedly global city caught up with the rest of the world".
I was asked to speak on this issue at a meeting yesterday of the NSW Local Government Managers Association Governance Network. My talk focused on the policy issue of improving compliance with food hygiene standards by making more information publicly available. Experience in other countries is that a grade card or scores on doors type scheme has the support of those responsible for public health and once introduced results in improved hygiene and better health outcomes. Until this sort of system is introduced, councils in NSW are faced with a dilemma about whether to disclose information sought under FOI.

My own view is that information that records a decision to issue an order or penalty notice is not covered by an exemption in the NSW FOI Act. In any event, a council has authority to disclose such information where it judges the public interest in disclosure outweighs any adverse impact on the business concerned.

A better system would be a database of results of inspections, centrally maintained for example by the NSW Food Authority and published on a designated website, with scope for the business concerned to have included their response and details of any rectification undertaken in response.

The big silence on the issue now is the NSW Government and what it sees as the best way to achieve policy objectives of high standards of hygiene in the handling of food we all consume in restaurants.

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