MORE than half the councils in NSW have not fined any food businesses caught breaking food safety laws in the past four years, raising fears that much of the state has no effective protection against food poisoning from unhygienic restaurants and cafes.
Figures provided by the Office of State Revenue, which collects payments for fines imposed by councils, show that since 2004 only 67 out of more than 150 councils imposed any fines on restaurants and takeaway food businesses flouting hygiene laws.
Even some big Sydney councils, such as Willoughby, Lane Cove and Mosman, imposed no fines from 2004 to October this year, while some councils with many restaurants, such as Leichhardt, imposed just a handful of fines.
Leichhardt Council, which covers Sydney's biggest Italian restaurant and cafe precinct and has about 1000 food businesses, imposed only five fines since 2004, the same number as Marrickville. Wollongong imposed two, Botany three, Camden three and Strathfield two.
Ku-ring-gai Council, where a man died hours after eating asparagus sauce at Tables restaurant in Pymble in January last year, imposed no fines on any of its 350 restaurants and food businesses until September this year when it fined a business for selling out-of-date ham.
A council spokesman, Eric Aubert, said while Ku-ring-gai Council officers regularly inspected food businesses, they did not impose fines as "efforts have been concentrated on making businesses compliant rather than issuing fines".
He said Ku-ring-gai Council preferred to issue warnings or orders to comply and said this policy had achieved "a 100 per cent success rate for compliance for re-inspections".
In contrast some councils, including North Sydney, which borders Willoughby, Lane Cove and Mosman, fines food businesses almost every week as well as imposing prohibition orders, compliance orders and prosecuting businesses for serious breaches.
The data, obtained by the Herald under freedom-of-information laws, shows North Sydney Council imposed 460 fines on food businesses from 2004 to October, while the City of Sydney, which has the largest number of food businesses in the state, imposed 530 fines. Other active councils include the Blue Mountains, which imposed 236 fines, Fairfield, 202, and Warringah, 191.
Spokesmen for Mosman, Willoughby and Lane Cove councils echoed the comments of Ku-ring-gai Council and said there was no need to fine businesses when they could use other means to ensure compliance with the law, such as education or re-inspections. But several experts the Herald spoke to said it was ridiculous to claim standards could be maintained without ever imposing penalties such as fines.
"If you never issue a fine, they will laugh at you," said Des Sibraa, a former chief food inspector for NSW and now a food safety consultant.
He said the only conclusion to be drawn from the fact so many councils did not issue any fines was that many of them did not have serious inspection regimes.
"There is a place for warnings, but only for any minor matters, not for anything serious … Some councils are not doing anything," Mr Sibraa said.
Hardly any councils in country areas of NSW have imposed fines over the past four years. They include Albury, Bega, Broken Hill, Clarence Valley, Dubbo, Kiama, Parkes, Dubbo, Griffith, Lake Macquarie, Orange, Shellharbour, Tenterfield, Tweed and Wagga Wagga.
Mr Sibraa said it was clear that "some councils don't want to impose fines or prosecute because it gives their town a bad name".
"It's clearly not as good as it should be. Any inspector running
around must find some matters requiring prosecutions or the imposition of a fine."
Dubbo City's manager environment control, Amy Nalder, insisted that standards were no worse in Dubbo than elsewhere.
"If we ever see anything that's a threat to public health we tell them to throw all the food out," she said. " We had one of those this week. Food in a cabinet was above 5 degrees. We want to see safety ensured so we watch them throw it out … the stray dogs in Dubbo are very well fed."
Ms Nalder said when Dubbo Council received complaints of food poisoning, it referred them to the NSW Food Authority. Council officers would then visit the premises "and get them to do a demonstration of washing their hands, check the fridges".
The Health Department used to be responsible for inspecting food businesses but when the NSW Food Authority was created in 2004, the job was loosely divided between the new authority and councils. While the authority has the right to inspect any food businesses, it focuses on licensed businesses such as abattoirs, food processing plants, hospitals and nursing homes, leaving councils to carry out the day-to-day inspection of places where consumers eat.
The authority's director-general, Alan Coutts, declined to speak to the Herald but a spokesman, Alan Valvasori, said the huge discrepancy in fines between councils did not necessarily reflect different standards of compliance.
"The number of penalty notices [fines] issued by councils is not a valid measure of each council's overall inspection/food regulation activities. One does not necessarily correlate to the other."
In July the authority began publishing on its website details of most fines imposed on the state's 55,000 food businesses, with the trends broadly reflecting that revealed by the Office of State Revenue.