Audited councils in an Australian state are not doing enough to protect public health, according to a report.

The Victorian Auditor General’s Office (VAGO) looked at whether agencies are complying with their legal responsibilities for food safety. This included the Department of Health and councils in Casey, Geelong, Hepburn, Kingston, and Manningham.

Three recommendations were made to the five councils to improve compliance with legislative responsibilities and workforce planning.

Seven recommendations to the Department of Health covered industry workforce shortages, improving reporting of food safety performance and enhancing guidance and training.

Not meeting targets
Findings fell into three areas with councils’ regulation of food premises not fully meeting requirements in the Food Act 1984, which regulates the industry in Victoria. Food safety reporting by the Department of Health and councils was called “ineffective.” Also, while the Department of Health’s guidance and training has improved, it did not always meet the needs of councils.

Auditors found none of the councils consistently assessed all class 1 and 2 premises or inspected all class 3 outlets between 2018 and 2022. They said assessment and inspection ratings were inconsistent and councils struggled to identify unregistered premises.

Class 1 sites, such as hospitals, prepare and serve potentially hazardous food to vulnerable populations. Class 4 outlets sell pre-packaged low risk foods.

Geelong, Hepburn, and Manningham did not meet food sampling obligations in certain years and the Department of Health did not know which councils had met targets.

“If councils don’t identify and take action on non-compliant premises, it may lead to unsafe food practices going undetected or unaddressed. Inconsistent assessment or inspection ratings between councils mean consumers are not getting the same level of protection against food safety risks across Victoria,” said auditors.

The audit team found 19 unregistered home-based businesses using online food delivery platforms in four of the council areas.

COVID-19 impact and staff shortages
Only 24 and 23 percent of all 79 Victorian councils reported they had assessed all registered class 1 and 2 premises in 2020 and 2021 respectively. This compared to between 46 and 49 percent from 2018 to 2019. The main reason for the drop in annual food safety assessment was the COVID-19 lockdowns. At Geelong and Hepburn, vacant environmental health officer posts made the situation worse. Hepburn has also had to deal with fires, floods, and storms.

“Department of Health and councils need to respond quickly to the shortage of skilled staff, which compromises the effectiveness of the food safety regulatory system. The failure of all audited councils to conduct proactive monitoring of all class 1, 2 and 3 food premises each year increases the risk that unsafe food practices in food premises may continue undetected, posing a risk to public health,” said auditors.

There are also challenges around consistency, with variation in EHOs’ interpretation of food safety requirements. A lack of uniformity can mean higher costs for firms needing to rectify non-compliant issues because of the council being tougher in assessment or inspection ratings.

Councils followed up some poor performers nine times in one year to rectify non-compliance issues. They usually inspect food premises within one to two days of receiving a complaint.

Only Casey and Kingston achieved food sampling targets for the 5-year period between 2018 and 2022. A database problem means the Department of Health is unable to collate or analyze the results of statewide sampling to identify problem or risk areas. A lack of monitoring means the agency does not know which councils are not meeting food sampling targets.

Data reporting was another issue as the Department of Health does little meaningful analysis of council food safety activity reports. It does not publicly report foodborne illness trends or use sampling information to assess risks to public health. Information published by councils about food safety assessments is also not always comparable between authorities.

Auditors said all audited councils could make better use of data from inspections, food sampling and complaints to help with education, enforcement and identifying systemic issues.

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