Poor hygiene in restaurants can result in food poisoning. In some countries food safety inspection details are published on a website and restaurants have to display their hygiene score. But currently in Australia it’s almost impossible to find out if a restaurant is up to scratch.
CHOICE wants hygiene inspection information to be made available to the public in a nationally consistent manner — both on a central website and displayed on the premises — so people can make an informed decision as to where they eat, no matter where they live. We’ve written to the food and health authorities in each state and territory calling for action.
Until results of inspections are publicly available, use our checklist of what to look for when eating out to help reduce the risk of getting food poisoning.
Contaminated food from restaurants, commercial caterers, bakeries, takeaways and nationally franchised fast-food premises was suspected or confirmed as the culprit responsible for around 65% of reported food poisoning outbreaks in Australia in 2006. So it’s certainly in your interest to know the hygiene status of food outlets if you don’t want to get sick. But there’s no fast and easy way of knowing if a restaurant has a kitchen that’s filthy or is infested with rats, or even if it passed its last council inspection.
Please note: this information was current as of November 2007 but is still a useful guide today.
Australians in the dark
Australians are for the most part kept in the dark about dirty restaurants and other food outlets. The overall administration of food safety is on the state level. Restaurant inspections are carried out by local council staff (generally environmental health officers), and a report is completed for each visit detailing the food outlet’s hygiene standards –– both good and bad. The frequency of inspections can vary from council to council and state to state and can be up to the discretion of the inspecting officer, but will generally depend on the risk the food business poses and its history of compliance with food standards. Some businesses may be inspected every 18 months, others every six months, for example.
If a business fails to comply with food safety requirements under the Food Standards Code or relevant Act, inspectors have a number of compliance and enforcement options available to them, which can vary from state to state. These include written warnings, improvement notices or –– for more serious breaches –– on-the-spot fines (penalty or infringement notices, as they’re known in some states) right through to prosecution. But inspection reports and details of notices or fines that are issued aren’t made public.
In contrast, there are many countries where consumers have access to restaurant hygiene information. See The situation overseas.
Are there plans for improvement?
We surveyed the states and territories and asked if the situation was going to change.
The NT, Queensland, SA, Tasmania and Victoria said they had no immediate plans to improve public access to this type of information, although some are considering the options:
- The NT plans to consider the merits of the various food hygiene rating systems, such as those operating in other countries.
- In SA, the Department of Health is examining different models of informing consumers.
- An inquiry into food regulation in Victoria has taken place; as part of this the publication of businesses’ food and safety records, as an incentive to drive improvement, was examined. The final report hadn’t been made public as we went to press.
The NSW government's Notifications of convictions website gives details of businesses that have been convicted of an offence under the Food Act, and WA is in the process of developing one.
Prosecutions are public and convictions are routinely reported in local papers, so the NSW website really only pulls together information that’s already available. While this is progress, it only highlights the minority of offenders that are taken to court. In NSW there were 16 prosecutions over the last six months, for example. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when you consider that 1000 or so penalty notices are issued in NSW each year, and customers of these establishments are none the wiser. NSW is currently reviewing a proposal to take its website a step further and ‘name and shame’ those businesses that are issued penalty notices.