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Diners denied the dirt on chefs

 
The State Government has scrapped its promise to follow Britain and the United States by publishing details of all fines imposed on restaurants caught breaching food laws.

Nine months after he promised to make public fines imposed on all food businesses, the Minister for Primary Industries, Ian Macdonald, said the Government had decided to only reveal those breaches of the law it regards as "serious offences".

He said the Government had its own experts who would determine which cases posed a sufficient threat to public health to warrant publication on the Food Authority website.

Such cases would include "selling a chicken burger with a white pill embedded in the bottom" or using building equipment, such as "an old rusty concrete mixer", for food preparation.

But restaurants fined for merely having unhygienic or unsanitary conditions, such as broken floors, damaged tiling or dirty food preparation areas would not have their identities revealed nor the nature of the offences for which they were punished.

"We are trying to strike a balance between public health and technical breaches," Mr Macdonald said. "We see some of these [fines] as being minor, not directly affecting the health of customers."

In May last year, Mr Macdonald promised to make public the details of all food safety fines imposed on food businesses after the Herald revealed a sushi factory in Larkin Street, Camperdown had been fined 11 times and closed twice for offences including rat infestations, and that this information had been kept secret.

"I am totally happy to do it. I would hope to have it finalised in the spring session of Parliament," he said when asked if fines imposed by councils and the NSW Food Authority would be made public.

Mr Macdonald said yesterday the legislation had been prepared after discussion with local government, the food industry and consumer groups.

But Claire Hughes, the senior food policy officer with consumer group Choice, said it appeared to fall well short of what the public wanted.

"We wanted a website with the details of every inspection report, a site that lists every inspection result regardless of whether or not a penalty notice was issued," she said.

The Greens upper house MP John Kaye said the legislation sold out consumers and he would seek to amend it in line with what Choice wanted so that it reflected what happens in many parts of the world.

"This is insanity, a year and a half to get nowhere. It's not expensive to do. It's not difficult. This proposal just lacks courage," he said.

"This Government just has a culture of sweeping problems under the carpet with the dead cockroaches."

Under the legislation, only the authority will have specific power to publish details of restaurant fines, but it is councils, not the food authority, which impose these fines.

Mr Macdonald conceded that the authority often would be unaware of fines imposed by councils as there was no obligation for them to report details of their fines, although he hoped that this would change.

The new legislation will also do nothing to reveal which councils are inspecting restaurants regularly and which councils simply do not bother.

In Britain and much of North America, the results of restaurant inspections, including details of fines, are made public on websites or via programs such as "scores on doors" that list the results of the most recent inspections.

Public health studies have shown that providing this transparency has significantly improved the standard of restaurant hygiene and cut the incidence of food poisoning

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