Food Amendment (Public Information on Offences) Bill 2008

About this Item
SpeakersWestwood The Hon Helen; Ficarra The Hon Marie; Griffin The Hon Kayee; Moyes Reverend The Hon Dr Gordon
BusinessBill, Second Reading

Page: 6213

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 1 April 2008.

The Hon. HELEN WESTWOOD [11.34 a.m.]: The Food Amendment (Public Information on Offences) Bill 2008is bill balances the right of consumers to know about serious breaches of the food standards with the equitable treatment of food businesses. It also contains important provisions requiring the registers to be accurate and complete. The fact that the register can have information added to advise when a business has been sold is particularly useful because it lets consumers know when a business is under new management. By making all this information available, the bill strikes a fair balance between, on the one hand, putting an alleged breach of standards on a particular day at a particular time on the public record and, on the other hand, making it clear that the new business owners were not the recipients of the penalty notice.

I welcome the fact that interested people—that is, owners or employers of a business or people named on the register—can apply to have errors or omissions corrected or to have information about changes in ownership added to the register. It is appropriate that the fines and penalties revenue collected as a result of notices and proceedings launched by the Food Authority can be retained by the authority up to a defined cap. That means the running costs of this important new information resource are funded by the people who are alleged to be breaching the food standards rather than by ordinary taxpayers.

Although one would not know it to read some reports, the aim of this legislation is to ensure that details of food safety breaches are made public on the Internet. This will put New South Wales ahead of every other State and Territory in both legislation and practice. New South Wales consumers will be the best informed in the country. The Government is targeting the small handful of individuals and companies that are cutting food safety corners. Last financial year, the New South Wales Food Authority prosecuted 70 offences and the Food Authority and local councils together issued approximately 1,000 food safety penalty notices across the State. These are the poor performers who deserve to be outed, and that is exactly what this legislation will do—despite claims to the contrary. Clearly, we do not want a case of bureaucracy going mad and publishing every minor offence, such as a cracked tile or no grouting between tiles. Reporting of minor faults like these could damage the reputations of hard-working families needlessly.

The Government simply wants to ensure that no business is unfairly punished through this system. Some penalty offences are technical and notices may be issued to good-faith businesses. For instance, a business may be starting up and fail to display its licence. It would be misleading and unfair for such a business to be lumped in with those caught with cockroach-infested premises or, as mentioned by the Minister yesterday, a business mixing food in a rusty cement mixer. Those types of breaches will definitely be revealed. Those doing the wrong thing, such as having dirty, rat-infested premises or putting the health of their customers at risk, will be named and shamed.

The legislation will enable detailed publication of the names of those businesses that put consumers at risk or that are prosecuted, fined or shut down. The legislation even protects broadcasters and media outlets in their fair dealing with and reporting of these matters. That should aid in promoting both public interest in and awareness of food safety matters. This legislation represents a victory for consumers, who have the right to know about food businesses that are doing the right thing. They can then confidently vote with their dollars. It also provides an extra incentive to food businesses to ensure they put food safety first because failure to do so will result in their being named and shamed. I commend the bill to the House.

The Hon. MARIE FICARRA [11.38 a.m.]: The object of this very important Food Amendment (Public Information on Offences) Bill 2008 bill is to amend the Food Act 2003 to extend the powers of the New South Wales Food Authority to publish information about offences relating to the handling and sale of food. This Government promised in May 2007 to name and shame food manufacturers and outlets following breaches of the Food Act. This sudden attention from the Government came as a result of many critical media reports, including an article by Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald about the infamous sushi factory caught operating under extremely unhygienic conditions that resulted in consumers suffering food poisoning. Other media reports gave graphic descriptions of dirty restaurant kitchens that were totally unacceptable according to Food Authority standards.

The Opposition welcomes this bill, which has finally been introduced. It is true that this State has lagged behind the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and even New Zealand in this regard. Finally the public will have the right to know about food outlets that are not complying with food safety standards. Why after so many months does the Government's register on the New South Wales Food Authority website still list only a chicken shop and a distiller and not restaurants or takeaway outlets found to be infringing food safety standards? Why has this Government ignored for so many years the effective and successful legislation enacted in the United States and the United Kingdom that provides transparent and public identification of offending food venues? The Government is acting now, but calls for something to be done have been heard for a long time. Why was the name and location of the twice closed and 11 times fined sushi factory revealed by the Sydney Morning Herald in July last year never revealed to consumers? They have a right to know.

The Hon. John Della Bosca: It has to go to court.

The Hon. MARIE FICARRA: The Minister can respond to these issues in his reply. How does this Government monitor food outlet inspections undertaken by local councils? I have heard about all the wonderful synergy and partnerships between the Food Authority and local councils. I spent 16 years in local government and I was always dissatisfied with the resources provided to local councils and the direction and commitment of food inspectors to do their job. Often they would like to do it but they do not have the appropriate resources. We can all see the food handling practices in open areas of shopping centres. Given that, one wonders what is going on behind the scenes.

How can one explain the low inspection rates by most New South Wales councils? For example, Leichhardt council has not imposed a fine in years. All these questions demand honest answers. I congratulate Woollahra council. I will read from an article by Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald of 23 May 2007. I know Matthew Moore upsets the Minister and the Government but, nevertheless, he has been instrumental in causing the Government to bring this legislation forward. He is the responsible journalist who has driven this issue for a long time. The article read:

      Eastern suburbs diners can now find out if their local restaurant has a cockroach plague or stores chicken at room temperature following a council's decision to release copies of its food safety fines.

      Woollahra Municipal Council's landmark decision to release infringement notices to the Herald reveals a host of food offences including an instance of the BP service station in Woollahra, storing chicken cooked the previous day at 13.5 degrees.

      "That's a potential killer. There's no better medium for bacteria growth than cooked chicken," said the former chief food inspector with the NSW Health Department, Des Sibraa.

      BP received Woollahra's highest fine of $1320 for "handling food for sale to the public in an unsafe manner".
All I can say is that $1,320 is a joke, and a lot of local government authorities know it is a joke but they have been hamstrung. They have limited resources. Their rate base is limited. They cannot readily increase their revenue base, yet we are imposing more and more jobs on local government for it to do. If you want local government to do jobs properly, resource it. Details of these offences only came to light because Woollahra council agreed to follow the international trend and release them to the press under freedom of information laws. In doing so it became the second council in New South Wales to release such information.

Blacktown City Council earlier this year released to a local paper a list of food businesses fined for breaches of the food laws but did not provide the penalty notices. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction. In other parts of the world such information is already widely available and easy to access. In New York, the inspection results of more than 20,000 restaurants are available on the Internet and can be searched according to their hygiene point score. Other US American States have similar schemes and they are found in many parts of Canada. Schemes operate in New Zealand and Toronto, where restaurant hygiene ratings are posted on the shop window, an effective way to let the public make an informed choice of restaurant and food provider.

A similar scheme began operating in Britain recently. Councils have signed up to a massive Scores on Doors program, posting hygiene compliance results to restaurant doors. The scheme began after Britain's new freedom of information laws revealed that Berkshire's The Fat Duck restaurant—voted best in the world in 2001—got unsatisfactory scores on three of four food samples tested. If consumers in the United Kingdom want further details about a restaurant's approach to hygiene, they can get it them from this simple score, and websites provide the distressing details that are commonly published after food inspections. Websites even have lists of best performing restaurants and worst performing restaurants so consumers can choose where they eat according to their restaurant's hygiene record, if they so choose.

Of course, no restaurant wants to have publicised the Lotus House-like practice of using old cloths to cover prepared food, which had it placed on the list of Leicester's worst performers. This became quite infamous in the United Kingdom and led to the drive for legislative changes. But the whole idea of publishing this information is to give customers the right to know a restaurant's hygiene record. The theory is that if restaurants know this information is to be made public they will do their best to fix mistakes and ensure a better score next time they are inspected. That is a great suggestion. This legislation goes so far, but it can go further. I hope we will get some feedback from councils and from our constituents on the implementation of the legislation. If there is a need for further legislative change we should be courageous enough to do it, as legislators have been in the United Kingdom and the United States.

I will quote from examples of offences under the Food Hygiene (England) Regulations 2006 that are listed on the Food Standards Agency website. At a cafe in Birmingham there was evidence of mouse activity and droppings were littered throughout the food preparation areas. The premises were not clean, the floors were dirty and there were no adequate procedures in place to control the ingress of pests. A dead mouse was found towards the rear of the preparation area. The fine was £1,000 with prosecution costs of £630. A food and wine retail outlet in Birmingham had nine offences of processing for sale foodstuffs, including packets of meat, meat patties and custard pots, that were past their use-by dates. I believe this offence would be common in a lot ofmany food outlets in our State. That establishment was fined £900 with prosecution costs of £462, sending a very strong message. The listed offences go on and on. In a supermarket there was an accumulation of mouse and rat droppings on shelves and floors close to food storage areas, and packets of biscuits and a bag of rice had been gnawed by rodents. The fine was £9,800 and prosecution costs were almost £1,000. The penalty is starting to get real.

Closer to home, most councils in Sydney refused to disclose their results in the Sydney Morning Herald survey I referred to. The City of Sydney would not identify more than 70 restaurants fined when the Sydney Morning Herald sought information under freedom of information laws. North Sydney council did the same. Leichhardt Municipal Council said it had issued no fines at all in 2005 and 2006. Clearly, this legislative shake-up of the food manufacturing, dining and retailing sectors, along with councils to boot, is long overdue.

I raise the concerns of many persons in the restaurant, catering and food retail sector regarding the inadequate required training in food handling and basic hygiene given by Food Authority regulators to young persons entering the trade as chefs, food preparation assistants and kitchen hands, along with ongoing training of those working within the trade. Recently, the media reported the case of the Pymble restaurant chef with poor knowledge of food handling processes whose actions, it is alleged, may have led to the death of a diner.

The Hon. Ian Macdonald: Be very careful. The matter is before the courts.

The Hon. MARIE FICARRA: I know it is before the courts and I am not mentioning names, but he has admitted that he was unaware of the time that food can be left outside of refrigeration. This is basic stuff. If it is happening there, it is happening elsewhere. It would appear that another failing of this bill is that it neglects to address breaches of the Food Act by hospitals, school canteens, nursing homes and other public and private institutions.

The Hon. Ian Macdonald: They are all covered.

The Hon. MARIE FICARRA: I am glad to hear that and I hope you will address that.

The Hon. Ian Macdonald: It is in my speech.

The Hon. Christine Robertson: They have been covered for a long time.

The Hon. MARIE FICARRA: They have not been covered for a long time. If the honourable member did food inspections in hospitals and nursing homes she would be shocked. If she had any of her own family in those places she would be worried. Has she ever tried eating some of the food? The Food Authority will keep a public register of offences and will be able to name persons on that register who have been found guilty by a court of food safety offences or whose employee or agent is found guilty of such an offence, including whether or not a conviction is entered following the guilty finding.

The bill will permit the publication of such information directly on the Food Authority website without first having to publish the information in a newspaper or the Government Gazette, as is currently the case. The Food Authority will have the power to publish information on its register about penalty notices issued for alleged offences relating to the handling and sale of food and, subject to limitations, to name such persons issued with these penalty notices. Public sector agencies will be permitted to disclose certain personal information to enable the Food Authority to go about doing its business effectively—that is, the business of food safety in this State.

Liability protection from the disclosure of such information, including liability against defamation, will be covered in this legislation. This is important, as it will protect all proper forms of information dissemination that promotes both public interest and awareness in food safety matters. The bill facilitates the publication of convictions that have been secured by other enforcement agencies under the Food Act such as local councils that should perform a significant proportion of enforcement activity. Consumers have the right to know details of all Food Act convictions, regardless of which level of government takes action.

We hear cries that the Government wants New South Wales to be the leader in food safety in Australia, which is why it has taken the pioneering step to enhance food safety by establishing the New South Wales Food Authority. The response by so many consumers wanting to be better informed, including Matthew Moore from the Sydney Morning Herald representing the voiceless masses, is that it is about time the Government assumed better responsibility for food safety and monitoring industry standards in this State. It is the Government's job and it is good to see that it is getting on with it. The proposition that the bill should be introduced as the Matthew Moore Sydney Morning Herald bill is probably correct. He would be satisfied with the media attention on this matter.

The bill will provide an incentive to the food industry to boost its performance. If the Food Authority and local councils work together to properly enforce the Food Act 2003 we will better utilise available resources towards improved food safety outcomes. It is pleasing to note that in the past 12 months the Food Authority has successfully doubled its rate of prosecutions. It finalised 16 prosecutions comprising 70 charges, which saw a total of $139,000 in fines being imposed and $224,000 in costs being awarded. It is vital to provide information on food or breaches elsewhere in the supply chain other than just restaurants, cafes and retail outlets. In fact, a restaurant owner or retailer may well be interested in the compliance history of his or her suppliers. The authority's compliance work focused on the higher risk food businesses in the retail and pre-retail sectors, including primary production.

Local government authorities have been concerned with consistency between enforcement agencies. Greater transparency around penalty notices will translate to a tighter administration of the system within councils. Under the food regulation partnership agreement between the State and local governments, the Food Authority will work with local councils to promote best practice and therefore greater consistency in enforcement actions. It is pleasing to see that increased training for council environmental health officers will be undertaken.

In conclusion, this bill is long overdue. If the Government wants people to believe that New South Wales is setting the pace for the other Labor States, this bill reinforces the view that Labor has to be pulled into the twenty-first century. This bill finally gives consumers some knowledge regarding those food outlets that are not doing the right thing. Owners and operators of manufacturing and food outlets who do not put food safety first could suffer the commercial backlash as informed consumers send them a clear message regarding their right to choose where and what they eat. The Coalition does not oppose the bill.

The Hon. KAYEE GRIFFIN [11.52 a.m.]: I support the Food Amendment (Public Information on Offences) Bill 2008. In supporting this bill I commend the New South Wales Food Authority for its efforts in providing food-related information to the consumers of our State. Under the New South Wales Food Act, the New South Wales Food Authority, amongst other things, is required to provide community education and assistance in relation to food safety matters, or, as it states on its website and other documentation, to provide "safer food and clearer choices".

The "safer food" side of that statement is ensured by the authority's food regulations and regulatory program, which includes audit and inspections and is second to none. The consumers of this State already benefit from this on a day-to-day basis. Overall compliance by the food industry is remarkable. One should not forget that the majority of the approximately 55,000 food businesses in this State are doing the right thing. On the "clearer choices" side of the equation, it is wonderful news that consumers will soon have yet another tool available to make informed choices about where they buy their food. It is, however, not the only tool and I take this opportunity to reflect on a few other consumer education initiatives of the New South Wales Food Authority that were very well received.

Last year, research showed that up to 51 per cent of pregnant women in New South Wales struggled to understand or were not aware of the dangers of Listeria during pregnancy. Other pregnancy-related food safety messages were also not always clear. This is why the authority launched a pregnancy portal on its website in May last year featuring a range of food safety information for pregnant women. The authority had already launched its Mercury in Fish education campaign, which received the Community Communications Award from the Public Relations Industry Association National Golden Target Awards for Excellence. The awards highlight projects undertaken by government bodies and agencies, consultancies, businesses and community organisations. This is just another reminder of the high quality of the authority's community education efforts.

Following the Mercury in Fish campaign the New South Wales Food Authority has also been invited to host food safety communication training to the World Health Organisation and to food safety authorities in Hong Kong. The authority's website, where the penalty notice information will be posted, already provides the consumer with a myriad of "clearer choices" information. Consumer fact sheets are available on issues ranging from how to read a nutrition information label to what the difference is between a "use by" and "best before" date on food packaging. It has tips on how to make safe lunches for children and tips for people with special needs such as the elderly or people with allergies.

This bill provides consumers with yet another tool to enable them to make an informed choice about their food. It will allow consumers to access up-to-date information on food businesses in their local area that may not always have followed the rules. Indeed, it might actually reassure them that their favourite food outlet is as good as they thought, if it does not appear on the list. The bill further strengthens the New South Wales Food Authority's ability to inform New South Wales consumers about the state of food safety, and that is a good thing. I commend the bill to the House.

Reverend the Hon. Dr GORDON MOYES [11.56 a.m.]: I speak on the Food Amendment (Public Information on Offences) Bill 2008, which amends the Act to, first, extend the power of the New South Wales Food Authority to publish information about convictions under the Act, including information about persons who are convicted for offences related to the sale and handling of food by permitting the New South Wales Food Authority to keep a register of offences that must be available for public inspection on an Internet website; second, to give the New South Wales Food Authority power to publish information in the register about persons found guilty by the court and in respect of whom no conviction is entered of offences under the Act related to the handling or sale of food; third, to give the New South Wales Food Authority power to also publish information, subject to certain limitations, about penalty notices issued for offences under the Act and the names of the persons who are served with them relating to the sale and handling of food, by permitting the authority to keep a register of penalty notices which may also be available for public inspection on the authority's website; and, fourth, to provide a limitation of liability inwith respect to the disclosure of such information.

I congratulate the New South Wales Food Authority and the Government on the Food Amendment (Public Information on Offences) Bill 2008, but I make some points about it. I support the bill as a positive step towards transparency on food safety. Ensuring the safety of our food supply is an essential part of protecting and promoting the health of the community. Food is the most fundamental of needs and the New South Wales community has a right to expect that their food will be safe. Food safety guarantees a healthy and therefore more productive society. It reduces sickness in the community and reduces the load placed upon hospitals and other medical resources.

The Government cannot remain complacent about food safety when cases of food-borne illness continue to increase in the community. The very young and the very elderly can suffer serious or life-threatening illness as a result of food poisoning. Recent food law breaches by food business exposed by the media have led to food safety being a paramount issue for all consumers. I note that a number of members have spoken about the coronial inquest that found that 81-year-old William Hodgins died just hours after he had eaten fish with an asparagus cream-based sauce. There have been many details about this in the press and I understand this matter is still before the court. Because that matter is still sub judice I think it is appropriate that we should not be speaking about it at this time. I would suggest, Mr President, that you indicate to members your ruling on that matter. I will not refer to it in detail because I think to do so would be in contravention of our present standing orders.

In July last year the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that a sushi factory had been fined 11 times and closed twice but the public was never told. I took a particular interest in the case at the time and searched for further information but it was not published. The name and shame register to identify businesses that breach food laws has been established only to contain a chicken shop and a distiller that sold under-strength scotch whisky. Nine months on there is not a single restaurant on the website. There are incidents such as 274 cases of hepatitis A linked to the consumption of Wallace Lake oysters recorded in New South Wales in early 1997. One person died and Australia wide some 440 cases were reported. In South Australia in 1995 contaminated metwurst caused serious and in some cases life-threatening illnesses to 23 young children—sadly one child died of food poisoning.

Pursuant to sessional orders business interrupted and set down as an order of the day for a later hour.