An audit report in an Australian state has found many inspections of food businesses were overdue, recordkeeping was poor, and follow-up and enforcement were not always completed or consistent.

The Western Australian Auditor General’s report focused on food safety regulation by two local government entities, one a metropolitan and the other a regional one, with large numbers of restaurants, cafes, and bars in their districts. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic scope of the audit was amended and it was decided not to identify the local governments.

Auditor General Caroline Spencer said the audit found overdue inspections, poor recordkeeping, and gaps in enforcement.

“These weaknesses increase the risk that unsafe food practices are not fixed, and the public consumes hazardous food. Both entities have advised us that they are in the process of completing overdue inspections and improving their inspection and enforcement practices and reporting. Ultimately, it makes good business sense to maintain clean premises and comply with food safety standards to avoid any reputational damage from serving food that makes people ill,” she said.

Spencer added the findings are not about encouraging more regulation of businesses, as this can lead to an unnecessary burden on food firms.

In 2016-17, Western Australia had 23,000 registered food businesses. Across the state, more than 7,000 cases of intestinal infectious disease were reported in 2017. The Department of Health estimates that a 1 percent decrease in foodborne illness could save the community and health system nearly AUS $6 million (the U.S. $4.3 million) annually.

Overdue inspections detailed
Low-risk firms are inspected every 18 months from the starting point, which is the initial inspection frequency after a business is classified, with a minimum of 24 and a maximum of 12 months.

Medium risk companies are inspected every 12 months from the starting point or a maximum of six and a minimum of 18 months. High-risk sites are inspected every six months from the start or a maximum of three and a minimum of 12 months.

The audit report found current inspection and enforcement processes in the two local government agencies do not support an effective risk-based approach for regulating food businesses. Nearly 30 percent of high and medium risk inspections were overdue as 214 of 741 food business visits were pending as of November 2019.

The first government agency had 48 percent of high and 33 percent of medium risk firms overdue for inspection. On average, they were overdue by around 270 days. The second entity had 44 percent of high and 21 percent of medium risk businesses overdue. On average, they were late by more than 400 days.

These deviations mean businesses are paying annual fees for inspections that are not performed and they may miss out on information and advice on food safety practices. Both agencies told the auditor that some inspections could not be completed because businesses had canceled their registration or were closed.

Business information gaps
Both entities had incomplete records of inspections and inaccurate business register data. In a sample of 35 Australian Food Safety Assessment paper inspection forms, some were difficult to read, missing details, or an assessment against each standard was not recorded. Both agencies said they are developing an electronic form to improve the quality and completeness of inspection information. An electronic version of this inspection form is already available.

Company information in registers was not always accurate or complete as 47 of 1,204 businesses across both entities had no record of inspection and one agency had 15 companies in which the next inspection pre-dates the last one. Incomplete or inaccurate information can result in missed visits, and firms not being inspected according to appropriate risk classification.

Auditors found an instance where risk was not reassessed for business after multiple serious non-compliances were identified. In a review of 41 inspections across both entities, there were 30 inspections that identified non-compliance in food skills and knowledge, cleanliness, maintenance, handwashing facilities, or protecting food from contamination.

Both entities were not following up instances of identified non-compliance in a consistent way, to ensure food safety issues were fixed. Environmental Health Officers only recommended an improvement notice for two businesses, but these were never issued. One company had a follow-up inspection, while the other was later fined AUS $250 (the U.S. $180) for hazardous foods being thawed with no temperature control.

According to the Department of Health records, in 2018-19, only 2.6 percent of 734 inspections across both local government entities led to formal enforcement. Less than 1 percent of all inspections resulted in an improvement notice, the first option for non-compliance.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)