Sydney, Australia is a great city. I go there regularly and will return in July.And it'd be even better if restaurants and regulators provided the public with information about the safety of the city's restaurants
Restaurants and food service establishments are a significant source of the foodborne illness that strikes up to 30 per cent of citizens in so-called developed countries each and every year.
Sydney officials are now being pressured to release information about the safety of local restaurants and bolster restaurant safety in general.
After watching the mish-mash of federal, state and local approaches to restaurant inspection in a number of western countries for the past decade, I can draw two broad conclusions:
• Anyone who serves, prepares or handles food, in a restaurant, nursing home, day care center, supermarket or local market needs some basic food safety training; and,
• the results of restaurant and other food service inspections must be made public.
Parenting and preparing food are about the only two activities that no longer require some kind of certification in Western countries. For example, to coach little girls playing ice hockey in Canada requires 16 hours of training. To coach kids on a travel team requires an additional 24 hours of training.
It's unclear how many illnesses can be traced to restaurants, but every week there is at least one restaurant-related outbreak reported in the news media somewhere. Cross-contamination, lack of handwashing and improper cooking or holding temperatures are all common themes in these outbreaks -- the very same infractions that restaurant operators and employees should be reminded of during training sessions, and are judged on during inspections. Some jurisdictions -- such as the city of Fort Worth, Texas -- place so much importance on teaching these lessons they require mandatory food handler licenses and have invested in an infrastructure of training that demonstrates the city's commitment to public health. Other cities and states have no training requirement.
There should be mandatory food handler training, for say, three hours, that could happen in school, on the job, whatever. But training is only a beginning. Just because you tell someone to wash the poop off their hands before they prepare salad for 100 people doesn't mean it is going to happen; weekly outbreaks of hepatitis A confirm this. There are a number of additional carrots and sticks that can be used to create a culture that values microbiologically safe food and a work environment that rewards hygienic behavior. But mandating basic training is a start.
Next is to verify that training is being translated into safe food handling practices through inspection. And those inspection results should be publicly available.
A philosophy of transparency and openness underlies the efforts of many local health units across North America in seeking to make available the results of restaurant inspections. In the absence of regular media exposes, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a restaurant unannounced, how do consumers -- diners -- know which of their favorite restaurants are safe?
Cities, counties and states are using a blend of web sites, letter or numerical grades on doors, and providing disclosure upon request. In Denmark, smiley or sad faces are affixed to restaurant windows.
Publicly available grading systems rapidly communicate to diners the potential risk in dining at a particular establishment and restaurants given a lower grade may be more likely to comply with health regulations in the future to prevent lost business.
More importantly, such public displays of information help bolster overall awareness of food safety amongst staff and the public -- people routinely talk about this stuff. The interested public can handle more, not less, information about food safety.
Lots of cities still do not disclose restaurant inspection results, worried about the effect on business, but they aren't great cities.
And instead of waiting for politicians to take the lead, the best restaurants, those with nothing to hide and everything to be proud of, will go ahead and make their inspection scores available -- today.