Markus Mannheim August 08, 2012
Canberra's health inspectors are preparing dozens of legal cases against food outlets that they say operated under dangerously unhygienic conditions.
The government has also begun to bill unsafe eateries the costs of re-inspecting their premises, arguing the community should not shoulder the expense.
Documents accessed under freedom of information law show the health protection service had submitted 18 briefs on food safety breaches to the Director of Public Prosecution as of March 30, and was preparing a further 28 cases for submission. The service's director, John Woollard, told The Canberra Times last night he was baffled by the increase in cases, but hoped it was ''a spike that will drop down very soon''.
''We are identifying more critical breaches [of the Food Act] and I honestly don't know why that is,'' he said.
''We have been a little more targeted [in inspections], but I don't think that explains it all. The standards that apply to businesses haven't changed, nor have we started closing businesses for different reasons than in the past.
''We simply weren't seeing the sort of serious breaches that we're now seeing.''
Mr Woollard's team can close food businesses temporarily if they pose a ''serious danger to public health''.
The service issued 42 of these prohibition orders in 2011, a vast increase on the nine handed out during 2010.
Before then, the service typically issued one or two prohibition orders a year.
Nonetheless, Mr Woollard stressed the number of unsafe eateries was tiny, given there were about 2500 registered food outlets in the ACT.
''Most businesses are doing a fantastic job. It's just a very small proportion that are causing this problem.''
The rush of closures coincided with a campaign by The Canberra Times last year to highlight the secrecy that prevented unsafe restaurants from being identified. In response, the Gallagher government promised greater transparency and, as of March 2 this year, forced the businesses that it closed to display large red prohibition signs outside their premises. The courts have also been busy, with the owners of at least six food outlets receiving convictions this year.
The FOI documents also detail a proposal to start charging shut-down businesses for the costs of re-inspections.
Mr Woollard said the fees were introduced last month, and would be $330 for an inspection during business hours and $640 after hours.
The charges were necessary because eatery owners often demanded inspections before they were ready to reopen, he said.
''This was diverting a lot of our resources. The fees are an incentive for businesses to ensure that they've actually done what they need to do before it's safe for us to reopen them.''
The government encountered almost no opposition to the plan: the five food businesses that responded to the proposal were all generally in favour.
One unidentified owner wrote: ''The quicker these guys [unsafe eateries] get hit where it hurts - financially - the quicker we can achieve a much better outcome for the industry.''
Chief Minister Katy Gallagher has also said she may introduce a ''scores-on-doors'' scheme, whereby restaurants display a government-issued hygiene rating on their premises.
However, such a plan is unlikely to be implemented until at least late next year.