What's inside our eateries?
COCKROACHES in the cupboard, margarine and eggs left out on the bench, dirty fans and flyscreens, un-defrosted freezers and dirty cutting boards – it’s just a sample of what council inspectors have turned up in Southern Downs food outlets during the past 12 months.
Documents obtained by the Daily News under Right To Information (RTI) laws reveal officers have been kept busy touring local commercial kitchens and have lifted the lid on an array of food safety problems, some of which border on the stomach-churning and worse.
While most of our eateries have demonstrated good compliance with current food regulations, a number have left much to be desired and have been served with compliance orders by the council.
Queensland’s RTI laws prevent the media from identifying non-compliant outlets, but the council documents released contain more than a dozen rectification and clean-up notices issued to premises serving food to the public.
Some are the result of complaints from patrons, including one horrified diner who discovered a cigarette butt in her serving of hot chips.
The deep-fried fag end is believed to have found its way into the chips at a processing plant outside Warwick, with deliberate sabotage by a disgruntled employee blamed by the manufacturer.
Nonetheless, the outlet which served up the less-than-tasty ‘morsel’ was warned over a lack of proper checking of pre-prepared goods.
Live cockroaches were sighted in the food preparation area of one eatery by inspectors, while cockroach eggs were found built-up in the hinges of a crockery cupboard and eggs and excrement were detected over walls and under equipment in other local premises.
Some compliance notices were issued to mobile food vendors who do the country show circuit and in some cases did not have the necessary food business licence.
The council documents – which run to several hundred pages – also detail dozens of ‘kitchen confidential’ inspection reports filled out on the spot by compliance officers during the course of their inspections.
By far the most common problem is raw ingredients being stored at too-warm temperatures and a lack of fridge and cold room thermometers, along with food in hot boxes not monitored for proper temperatures.
In one case, council inspectors found margarine measured on a bench at no less than 24 degrees and raw eggs stored at “room temperature” for “long periods of time”.
Lack of cleaning of kitchen work areas – including benches, ceiling fans, light covers and fly-screens – also raised the council’s ire, as did a lack of proper hand-washing facilities in some cases.
Poor personnel practices such as staff standing on food preparation benches or failing to change protective gloves after handling money were also observed.
Also of concern is the number of premises whose designated Food Safety Supervisor was not present during the council inspection, with staff of some outlets not even aware of who the supervisor was.
Tough new laws introduced in Queensland through the Food Act 2006 require all food outlets – even outdoor charity barbecue stalls – to have an accredited Food Safety Supervisor who, by law, must be available at all times the outlet is open for business.
But qualifying for the role is ridiculously simple, with a free certificate available by completing an online course taking less than half an hour.
The Southern Downs Regional Council (SDRC) offers free online food safety training provided by an outside consultancy firm, with nearly 200 locals having completed the crash course to date.
Penalties for breaches of the Food Act can run to as high as $100,000 which could cripple some businesses.
A recent case from our region involved a butcher from Goondiwindi who was fined nearly $1000 for selling sausages containing sulphur dioxide in excess of the prescribed concentration.
The highest fine so far meted out was to a Woolworths supermarket in the Toowoomba Magistrates Court in June this year, with the Fresh Food People slugged for more than $26,000 for selling food products past their use-by date.
An SDRC spokeswoman said inspections were “normally” conducted at random and at least annually, if not more often as required.
She said no local premises had been closed down or fined and that council took “a proactive approach and worked with operators of food premises to ensure the speedy rectification of any problems identified”.
“In the past, there have been instances where council has threatened the cancellation of food licences and have had to instigate a detailed inspection and compliance program as a result,” she said.
“However council believes that a co-operative approach with food premises results in better outcomes for the community.
“As always, council officers have to work within the confines of the legislation and (the Food Act) does have provision to either suspend or cancel a food licence.”
The spokeswoman said under the Food Safety Standards, staff employed in food premises were required to have skills and knowledge in food safety and food hygiene matters relevant to their duties, whether these be washing dishes or actually preparing food.
“This knowledge can be obtained in several ways, for example, in-house training, formal courses and attending food safety courses,” she said.
“This year, council signed up to have free online food safety training with ‘I’m Alert’.”
“Council strongly believes the majority of food premises are ensuring suitable food handling procedures are carried out.
“From time to time minor non-compliance issues are found but premises take immediate action to rectify problems.”