EPA restaurant crackdown reveals an alarming trend
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EPA restaurant crackdown reveals an alarming trend

As part of their recent "Operation Scrap" audit officers from the ACT's Environmental Protection Agency visited 25 different food businesses in Belconnen, Hawker, O'Connor, Manuka, Kingston, Civic, Braddon and Dickson.

Cleaning practices, kitchen maintenance, the management of food waste and environmental pollution were all under the microscope.

Water waste found down a stormwater drain during the recent Operation Scrap audit.

Water waste found down a stormwater drain during the recent Operation Scrap audit.

Photo: Supplied

Officers found evidence kitchen waste had been dumped in storm water sumps at the rear of three of the 25 businesses checked, a strike rate of one in 8.3 or 12 per cent.

Once food scraps, detergents and other chemicals are dumped into the storm water system they soon find their way into creeks, rivers and, eventually, Lake Burley Griffin.

This can cause toxic algae blooms, fish deaths, unsafe swimming conditions and smelly and unsightly waterways.

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If this ratio of offending is extrapolated to the hundreds of restaurants, cafes, bistros, food markets and pop-up eateries that now exist in the ACT we have a major problem.

Photo: The Canberra Times

It is possible that tonnes of contaminants are being dumped into the storm water drains every month.

While the work by the EPA in identifying and acting upon this issue is commendable the penalties for such breaches appear to be out of step with what the community could reasonably expect.

An individual who dumps waste into a storm water drain can be fined up to $200; only a fraction more than the $193 fine for driving with your headlights on in a built-up area.

The penalty for an offending business is $1000, a figure that seems light when compared to court-imposed penalties for corporate environmental breaches elsewhere.

Pollution is not the only issue. Such lax kitchen practices can be taken as a probable indicator of bad housekeeping generally.

Most investigations into mass outbreaks of food poisoning, of which Canberra has had its fair share, generally identify poor food handling and a lack of attention to cleaning and hygiene as major causes.

Who wants to eat out a venue which does not make a strict practice of disposing of its food waste safely, responsibly and appropriately?

At least 75 people fell ill in January, 2017, after a salmonella outbreak occurred at a restaurant in Canberra's north. One victim lost eight kilograms in a week and spent four days in hospital.

A second serious salmonella outbreak, affecting at least four people, was reported at another cafe in a neighbouring suburb at the same time. Both eateries were forced to close by ACT health until "serious food safety breaches" were rectified.

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The two outbreaks came less than a year after two major gastroenteritis incidents; one at the Night Noodle Market in March 2016 and the other at an eatery in Canberra's south that May.

Hundreds of people fell ill, some quite seriously, as a result.

As of yesterday five different Canberra eateries, one of which had been fined a total of $36,000 for offences dating back to October 2011, were listed on ACT Health's Food Offence Register. This compares to 40 listings on the equivalent Health Victoria register.

The health risks associated with poor food handling and restaurant hygiene are the greatest single threat to this city's hard won reputation for excellence in dining. Every effort must be made to lift the bar if this is to be maintained.