But in the process of exposing the worker exploitation and uncleanliness scandal it became clear there was another scandal that has been festering away: an overall lack of enforcement by the relevant authorities of food hygiene regulations and fines that are so low they fail to act as a deterrent.
Take for instance, Grill’d in Windsor, Victoria, the local council, Stonnington, issued an inspection notice of “major non-compliance” in October 2018. It said it didn’t have effective cleaning systems in place, which is the basic requirement of any restaurant.
What was even more disturbing was the council admitting that the same non-compliances were happening every year and that “infringement notices may be issued if this continues”.
In other words, the council’s inspection notice and wishy-washy threats were ineffectual.
This was no better demonstrated in early December when a photo was taken and posted on The Age and Sydney Morning Herald websites of a mouse inside a tray of hamburger buns sitting on the floor at Grill’d in Windsor.
The council’s reaction was to keep the public in the dark. It refused to say how many years of non-compliance it had recorded at the Grill’d Windsor restaurant and its only reaction to the buns stored on the floor, which attracted a mouse in the pest infested restaurant, was that it would act if someone lodged a complaint.
On a broader level, it illustrates shortcomings in the food safety system in Australia. It seems the public only get to know what’s going on when it is too late.
The Victorian Health register of convictions of food safety is an eye-opener. In 2019 only a few cases went to court and received a conviction, which attracted a minuscule fine.
Examples included a restaurant in Footscray found guilty in the Magistrates Court of operating a business that wasn’t registered with a proper registration authority. It was fined $1586. Another case was a delicatessen and café found guilty of poor standards of cleanliness including accumulation of food waste, dirt, grease and a failure to ensure food contact surfaces of equipment was clean and sanitary to avoid contamination. It was fined less than $5000.
NSW also issues relatively small fines despite a number of restaurants being repeat offenders. For instance, a kebab shop in Bankstown was fined $880 for failing to maintain a standard of cleanliness on fixtures, fittings and equipment. The restaurant received a previous warning.
A Vietnamese restaurant in Haymarket was fined $440 for failing to keep fixtures, fittings and equipment to the required standard of cleanliness. A previous warning had been given. A butcher in Wollongong was fined $440 for selling food that contained an illegal preservative.
The list goes on.
The fines are so small they are failing to act as a deterrent. It means restaurants are getting away with poor food safety, which potentially puts customers at risk.
Ensuring a restaurant is compliant with food safety standards, including cleanliness, filling in food diaries and trace reports takes time, which costs money. The laws may be strict but if they aren’t properly monitored and enforced then things fall apart.
In May Retail Food Group was caught instructing franchisees at its national bakery chain Michel’s Patisserie to ignore expiry dates on certain foods and adopt a new shelf life extension date of up to six months.
At the time of the media expose, the NSW Food Authority said it had referred RFG for investigation to its counterpart in Queensland, Queensland Health, where RFG is headquartered.
More than seven months later, Queensland Health said it investigated the date marking practices of a Queensland supplier to Michel’s Patisserie, not RFG. It said no breaches of the Food Act were identified.
NSW Health investigated a NSW supplier, not RFG and said “NSW has no jurisdiction over RFG as its head office is based in Queensland. “We investigated the NSW supplier and found no food safety compliance issue.”
It would appear that RFG, which instructed the use by date changes, slipped through the regulatory cracks.
Like anything, when there is little oversight, light penalties and a lack of appetite to take action, things go awry. Food safety is no different.
Adele Ferguson is a Gold Walkley Award winning investigative journalist. She reports and comments on companies, markets and the economy.