Restaurant hygiene

Do you know if the food in your favourite restaurant is safe to eat?
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  • Updated:11 Nov 2007

01 .Introduction

In brief  

  • 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.


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02.The situation overseas


In many parts of the world you can check a restaurant’s hygiene score in the window, the same way as you would the menu. Some cities even have websites where you can read the latest inspection reports for local restaurants. Here are some examples:


In New York, the inspection results of more than 20,000 of the city’s restaurants are available on a website and can be searched by name, neighbourhood or hygiene points score (including establishments that have been awarded a ‘Golden Apple’ for their excellent food safety practices).
» Restaurant Inspection Information

A similar service exists in Los Angeles.
» Restaurant Watch


Toronto’s DineSafe program allows customers to see the results of any restaurant’s most recent inspection on a coloured sign in the window — green for pass, yellow for conditional pass (infractions must be corrected within 48 hours) and red for those that fail and are closed down. Its website provides details of each establishment’s most recent inspection finding, as well as its inspection history.
» DineSafe


Denmark provides comprehensive details on a website, with summaries displayed at the premises through the use of a range of different ‘smiley face’ symbols, from happy to sad.
» Smiley scheme (it's in Danish)


A ‘Scores on the doors’ scheme is being trialled in a few local authorities across England. Inspection information is displayed on the door or window, supported by information on a website.
» Scores On The Doors

New Zealand

In Auckland, registered food premises are given a food hygiene grade from A to E, which they have to display. There’s also a website where you can search by business name or address and look up the grade.
» Food grading search

Do scores on doors make a difference?

Inspection statistics from the LA program show the compulsory display of hygiene grade cards leads to cleaner restaurants. When that program was first implemented in 1998, 57% of restaurants got an ‘A’ grade. By 2005, that number had grown to 84%. The number of hospitalisations for food-borne illnesses in LA dropped by over 13% in the first year of the program, and the decrease was sustained in subsequent years.

Not only are restaurants cleaner and diners healthier, the cleanest establishments are making more money, according to more research on the LA program. Restaurants that earn an ‘A’ grade see their revenue grow by nearly 6%, because the public knows they’re clean. By contrast, ‘B’ grade restaurants earn less than 1% more each year, and ‘C’ grade restaurants lose 1% of business revenue when the grades are published.

You should be able to choose a restaurant on the basis of hygiene, just as you would on the basis of the menu, service or ambience. Ultimately, arming consumers with information about food inspection results — all of them, not just the extremes that result in convictions — raises expectations and gives an incentive to food outlets to improve or maintain good hygiene standards. This has a knock-on effect of reducing the health risk to consumers.

03.How to spot a dodgy food establishment



Looking hygienic is no guarantee that a food outlet is. Restaurants in particular can be hard to judge, as much of the food handling and preparation is done out of sight, but you can still look for: Restaurant hygiene

  • Dirty floors, counters and tables. If people can’t keep their premises clean, chances are they don’t do much better with the food.
  • Staff with dirty hands or fingernails, dangling jewellery and long hair not tied back.
  • Dirty or chipped crockery, cutlery or glasses.
  • Lukewarm food that should be hot, and cold food that isn’t quite cold. Hot foods should be kept above 60°C (steaming hot) and cold foods below 5°C, to stop most bacteria from multiplying.
  • Foods not cooked right through, such as a pink centre in hamburger meat and pink uncooked chicken (particularly near the bone).

Cafés and takeaway outlets

You can avoid the worst cafés and takeaway outlets by keeping a lookout for the following:

  • Uncovered or unwrapped food on counters.
  • Unrefrigerated prepacked sandwiches.
  • Condensation dripping from display cabinets onto food.
  • Raw and cooked foods, such as salads and meats, touching each other in display units.
  • Staff using the same set of tongs for different types of food — for example, salads and meat.
  • Staff not washing hands after handling raw meat.
  • Don’t automatically think that if staff are wearing gloves everything is OK. If they handle money as well as your food, or if they don’t change the gloves when handling different foods, the exercise is pointless.
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. Sign our campaign letter.