Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Food hygiene: name-and-shame

Last night I was dining at a Japanese restaurant when the guy behind the counter wiped his nose with his hands...both of them, then wiped his chopsticks with his fingers before using both the chopsticks and his hands to plate the food.  That got me thinking about hygiene, and the regulation of food safety.

My dining companion then reminded me that Bill Granger's iconic Darlinghurst restaurant received a penalty notice for having a broken thermometer in one of its fridges (there was no suggestion that there was anything wrong with the fridge itself).  As a result, the penalty notice was subsequently listed on the NSW Food Authority's website (the website is officially titled the "Register of Penalty Notices", but the "What's New" section of the website proudly describes it as "Name and Shame").

This got me thinking: the justification often given for such naming and shaming is that it provides consumers with information by which they can make an informed choice about where they source their food.  However, that seems spurious.  

If the relevant offence is significant enough that it could rationally affect a consumer's food-purchasing decision, then surely it should be shut down as a risk to public safety until remedial action is taken.  If it could not rationally-affect that decision (of which the Bill's broken thermometer is a good example) then what is the utility of naming (and shaming) them to begin with?  On the one hand it is an insufficient response to the risk, and on the other hand it is a gratuitous slur occasioned by a technical breach of food safety standards, readily remedied and which did not in the particular case create a risk of harm.

For what it is worth, having been exposed to the publicity at the time, it appears that Bill's is no longer listed on the Register of Penalty Notices.  I don't know why that is, although there is a section that allows the NSW Food Authority to remove information about a particular penalty notice from the Register "if it is satisfied it is appropriate in the circumstances"...whatever that means.  One wonders, if it was appropriate to remove it, why was it appropriate to have the information on the register in the first place?

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