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Experts are busy ensuring food outlets don’t pose a risk

March 31, 2016
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isPeople are eating out more than ever but time and cost pressures in the competitive cafe, restaurant and fast food scene make it inevitable some operators will be tempted to cut corners in food quality and staff training.

Keeping food safe is a passion for Maribyrnong City Council environmental health co-ordinator Foti Beratis. In suburban Melbourne’s multicultural environment, his team has helped develop an approach to assessing new food businesses that is increasing regulatory compliance and streamlining the council’s workload.

The efforts won statewide recognition at the inaugural Environmental Health Professionals Australia – Maddocks Awards of Excellence last year, raising interest from other councils and state health authorities.

Beratis says environmental health professionals must constantly adapt to changes in regulation, financial pressures on local government and a growing workload as numbers of food premises, festivals and street traders rise.

When he and team leader Sandee Paterson realised that noncompliance with the Food Act was also rising, surveys of established businesses were introduced and a pilot project developed to visit new businesses, explain what was required and conduct a follow-up visit 14 days later.

At the second visit, staff check on cleanliness, food handling and risk management, and ensure proprietors have updated information on food issues, such as the need for eggs to be refrigerated.

‘‘ We want to make sure proprietors know what they are doing and that the food they serve is safe,’’ says Beratis. His team was shocked some years back when they realised some businesses were buying low-price eggs sometimes malformed or cracked – and serving them to customers.

People applying for registration to operate in Maribyrnong now face tough tests, even before they can open their premises.

‘‘ We get them to prove to us that they can provide food safely.

‘‘ We don’t just register them because they have squeaky clean new premises. We want to know their food handling and hygiene will be of a very high standard.

‘‘ In the past, some new business premises looked impressive but a few months later we would discover that although people had received training, they were operating to a very low standard.’’

Beratis says the registration process takes longer than in the past, but he is confident it will save staff time later with fewer followup visits needed after mandatory annual inspections.

‘‘ Some people are surprised at the level of questioning, but when we explain why, they do understand.’’

Beratis trained in environmental health at Swinburne University of Technology and has worked at the City of Melbourne and the former City of Footscray. He and his team are happy with the impact of their new approach, but they know there is more to do. Continuing surveys are building a council database of knowledge about the local food industry, and reviews of the new assessment processes continue.

A next step will be translating compliance assessment materials into more languages.

Published by:  The Age AGE – Saturday, 26 Mar 2016 – Page 84