Victorian food safety officials dispute the criticisms

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 13th January 2012

Victorian Health Department officials have defended themselves against criticism of the administration of food safety enforcement in the State of Victoria.

Australian Food News has published several reports in the past month about failings in food safety enforcement in Victoria. Today, several Australian newspapers have provided further evidence of the Department failing to alert the public to a number of serious food poisoning outbreaks that took place during 2011.

One such incident involved a sushi restaurant in Box Hill, Melbourne, which left 84 people sick and 19 people in hospital.

A report in The Herald Sun newspaper revealed a number of other outbreaks across the State which the Department did not alert the public about.

In a statement passed on to Australian Food News today, the Victorian Health Department defended itself from the criticisms. The statement said, “The Department does not routinely refuse to reveal the names of businesses involved in outbreaks. The Department’s role is to identify the source of the outbreak, remove the source and investigate the cause of the outbreak in conjunction with the local government authority.”

The statement said that current legislation only provides for those businesses or individuals with recorded convictions (in contrast to prosecutions) to be placed on its ‘name and shame’ register.

Department claims law change is for the better.

The Department’s statement said that amendments to the Victorian Food Act 1984, which require the department to prepare an annual report, came into effect in July 2010. The inaugural report on Food Act activities will be published in early 2012.

The statement said, “In addition to developing the new reporting system, the Department and councils have been focused on implementing the three major amendments to the Food Act. These came into effect on 1 July 2010, 1 March 2011 and 1 July 2011.

“These major changes are intended to strengthen the State’s food regulatory system. Infrastructure to enable preparation of the report is being developed progressively. To assist councils with the transition, the Department has provided resources, training and advice to each council to address their specific issues and to facilitate a better understanding of the reporting requirements.”

Comments from FoodLegal expert

FoodLegal managing principal Joe Lederman has responded to the Department’s statement. He said that the real problem seemed to be a lack of resourcing for municipalities to monitor and enforce food safety laws at the local level.

“The Victorian Government never accepted the recommendation that was made by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission (VCEC) in February 2008  to provide more financial resources to municipalities for the purpose of administering the food laws. The government turned down the recommendation by VCEC for a three-year trial for the Department of Health to work hand in hand with local government officials. The government rejected Service Agreements that would have helped provide funding for municipal governments. These  financial resources are required for local municipal councils to function properly in enforcement of food safety laws”, Mr Lederman said.

Mr Lederman summarised his assessment, “The Victorian government’s approach to food safety is a hands-off role and its focus has been on website support rather than real monitoring on a regular basis. This contrasts sharply with New South Wales or other Australian State jurisdictions.”