Audit finds gaps in health agency’s food safety role

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A report on how the department of health in an Australian state handles food safety has found several shortcomings.

Findings from the Western Australian Auditor General included overdue inspections and lack of timely follow up, poor recordkeeping, inefficient reporting practices, and a lack of up-to-date guidance material at the health agency. These weaknesses reduced the department’s ability to effectively regulate consumer food safety and ensure the support it provides is relevant and useful, according to the auditor general.

Results on inspections and recordkeeping were similar to those published in June 2020 after an audit of two local government agencies.

In June 2019, Western Australia had 25,000 registered food businesses. 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 (U.S. $4.6 million) annually.

Improvement needed for consumer and business confidence
Auditor General Caroline Spencer said the agency needs to improve to give consumers more confidence they are eating safe food, and to give businesses belief that the government is regulating all firms fairly and focusing on the risks that matter.

“Our audit found that the department was conducting inspections at food businesses, but many were overdue and identified issues were not followed-up in a timely matter. The department has also not reviewed the legislation as required, and its guidance for internal and local government entity staff conducting inspections is out of date. This creates a risk that regulation will be inconsistent or inefficient,” she said.

Spencer added the department didn’t know the frequency and types of issues found, whether inspections are completed on schedule and if enforcement action is consistent.

The audit revealed the Department of Health’s guidance on risk classification, compliance and enforcement is out-of-date. This means local governments can assess similar risks differently and food businesses may not be subject to appropriate enforcement action after non-compliance is identified. The agency also didn’t collect sufficient data to effectively monitor and report on food safety.

Overdue inspections and enforcement issues
Some inspections were overdue, enforcement of compliance with the standards was not always consistent or timely, and practices for recording compliance history needed improvement. These issues may lead to unsafe food practices going undetected or left unaddressed, according to the report.

The Department of Health uses local government data on the number of inspections and enforcement activities for its annual performance report on food regulation activities but some of this information was up to 18 months old.

There are emerging issues, such as mobile food trucks, food delivery providers and production of kombucha tea, which are not adequately covered under existing legislation or supporting guidance.

Auditors reviewed all 30 consumer food businesses monitored by the department. At October 2019, six were overdue for inspection. These included a high risk business inspection that was 9.5 months overdue and four medium risk ones that were overdue between 1 and 3 years. Since officials have been made aware of the findings, three of the overdue inspections have been completed.

The Department of Health uses improvement notices as the first enforcement option when non-compliance is identified. Of 13 such notices, seven had no evidence of a follow-up inspection, and two were not followed up until four and five months after the required date. Delays in follow-ups increase the risk that the public will be exposed to unsafe food practices, particularly at firms already found to be non-compliant, according to the auditor general.

The Department of Health said it supported the five recommendations that were made but was mindful of potential resource issues during the process of addressing them.

By the end of this year, guidance and support information on the agency’s website for local governments and the public will be updated to reflect current consumer food safety issues. An automated system for data collection is being considered with guidance for following-up non-compliant businesses expected by the third quarter of 2021.

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