Auditor-General Maxine Cooper has announced the release of her report into the Management of Food Safety in the Australian Capital Territory:
the audit found shortcomings in the ACT Health Directorate’s Health Protection Service’s administration of food safety that need to be addressed to provide the community assurance that the food they buy and eat is safe.
The legislative and administrative framework for managing food safety
— The Health Protection Service has had its ability to effectively fulfil all of its food safety functions constrained due to recruitment difficulties in filling vacant staff positions, staff being tasked to undertake urgent non-food related activities, and an increase in complexity and number of prosecutions. This should not affect the Health Protection Service’s record keeping which was found to be inadequate.
— Specific operational information on food safety financial and performance management was not readily available. This information is needed for the Service to demonstrate it is effectively and efficiently fulfilling its food safety responsibilities.
— Flowcharts, some of which are complex, are used to guide staff in implementing food safety regulatory responsibilities. Guidance to staff could be enhanced if these were supported by other documentation.
Managing the registration of food businesses
— Poor documentation and record-keeping practices by the Health Protection Service prevents Audit from reaching a conclusion that the Health Protection Service is effectively managing the registration and renewal of more than 2 500 food businesses in the ACT. There was inadequate documentation to support the registration of food businesses that did not comply with technical requirements.
— The Health Protection Service has often been unable to inspect food premises within its targeted timeframes. This increases risks to consumers.
— Although registration processes were found to be problematic, the notification processes used by the Health Protection Service were implemented effectively.
Monitoring compliance of food businesses with regulations
— The Health Protection Service has adopted a system for monitoring compliance with food safety that classifies each business based on the risks it presents to public health and safety and uses this to guide the frequency of inspections. The effectiveness of this approach is compromised by a decrease in scheduled inspections of food premises. This appears to be due to a lack of operational staff, whether because of difficulty in recruitment, staff being assigned to other higher priority activities or prosecutions demanding more staff time. The Health Protection Service has a reactive approach to monitoring non-compliance and in the longer-term this may compromise food safety.
— Compliance is also hindered by insufficient information being available in the Public Health Complaints database and in the Health Manager database, as Health Protection Service staff rely on this information to support their activities.
— At the time of Audit, the Health Protection Service had not developed formal policies and procedures to guide staff in implementing enforcement actions. This contributed to staff adopting different work practices. A process improvement project is underway.
— Enforcement documentation on files and in the Health Manager database was incomplete or inaccurate. Poor record-keeping practices raise doubts about the reliability of the Health Manager database as a management tool, and the effective management of enforcement activities by the Health Protection Service. In the absence of full and appropriate documentation, Audit is unable to form a view on whether the food businesses identified as non-compliant have acted to fully meet the food safety requirements specified in the notices. Nor can Audit form a view on whether the Health Protection Service has implemented correct procedures to ensure compliance by the businesses.
— For transparency and accountability purposes, important decisions and the reasons for a particular action should always be fully documented.
— Current enforcement actions are resource-intensive and other options need to be pursued.