RTI reveals cockroaches, rat poison in Brisbane restaurants

The ‘Sunday Mail’ obtained ‘shocking’ information under the RTI on hygiene in eateries in Brisbane. Indian cities are not far behind; all you need to do is invoke the RTI Act, like it was done in Pune

We generally believe that Indians have a bad sense of hygiene and that our municipal corporations are lax when it comes to food safety in restaurants. This myth is dismissed with last week's revelation in tourist hot-spot Brisbane, when one of its leading daily "Sunday Mail" used the Right To Information (RTI) Act to get details about "black listed" restaurants on the Queensland health public register-a policy implemented by the Labour government in 2006 to put the names of offending restaurants in public domain, to safeguard health of citizens.

The article published on 3rd June in the Sunday Mail, (ww.) on the basis of documents procured under the information act is titled "Brisbane's black-list eateries named and shamed". The information procured from Brisbane City Council has revealed that names of influential restaurants which were heavily fined and prosecuted, for risking the health of citizens have not been made public in the Queensland Health Public Register, while small-time offenders are included in the list.

Also accessed is the dismal state of kitchen hygiene in the 'culprit' restaurants which debunks the theory put up by CWG (Commonwealth Games) official Lalit Bhanot that hygiene standards in India are different. If Mr Bhanot is to be believed, one would have thought that rat and cockroach-infested restaurants exist only in India but it is surprising to know that an otherwise forward nation like Australia is also marred by such problems. The article describes, "hundreds of cockroaches, and rat poison on a kitchen bench-these are some of the restaurant nightmares being kept from the public... Diners are being left in the dark about filthy rat and cockroach-infested restaurants thanks to the state's broken 'name and shame' regime."

The report states that documents under the Right to Information law revealed that a leading sushi restaurant, which was fined $45,000 because it was found to be a serious risk to public health during an inspection, has not been included in the public register. Another café which was also penalized heavily and has court cases against it for hundreds of cockroaches in its premises has also been protected from public eye. A Red Rooster restaurant which was fined $50,000 is not named in the public register. Similarly, 200 such restaurants have been protected and worse, instead of improving the system of food safety scrutiny, the Queensland council is contemplating shutting of the public register and instead introducing a mandatory board outside each restaurant with rating grades in order that the visitor instantly knows the cleanliness and hygiene standards. However, a research study conducted by New Zealand's food safety experts along with the government's food safety authority shows that visitors generally miss seeing the board and so the researchers have designed a special board which will not miss the eye of the visitor. For details: (ingentaconnect)
Among those penalised is an Indian restaurant too by the name of "Bombay Dhaba". The report states: "Bombay Dhaba, Shop 5, 220 Melbourne St, West End (relocated to Shop 2, 220 Melbourne St in May 2012)

"Action: Food licence cancelled January 2012. New licence issued 1 May 2012. Prosecution pending.

"Rat poison on bench tops, rodent faeces on shelving and flooring, rusting dishwasher racks, filthy floors and dirty dishes found during a council inspection in September, leading to the cancellation of the food licence. Photographs show green rat poison pellets on a food preparation bench, including close to a pair of tongs. Another business using the same name as Bombay Dhaba opened a short distance away on Melbourne St under a new licence last month after a fire in the old premises in January. A spokesman last week said the restaurant had a new premises and was under new ownership."

Other restaurants that have been prosecuted include Chinese as well as those serving European food.

The scenario in Pune
In 2010 and 2011, inspection of files under the RTI Act revealed that even posh restaurants, some of them five-star hotels, did not adhere to necessary food safety, kitchen and staff hygiene. Inspectors from the health department of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) which conduct a bi-annual inspection (there are 11 inspectors for over 7,500 eateries), carry with them a form that is filled during an inspection. It contains a list of 29 items that the restaurant is expected to adhere to strictly under the BPMC (Bombay Provisional Municipal Corporation) Act.

Leading restaurants in various localities were given show cause-notices. Most shockingly, none of the restaurants (which were inspected) had conducted medical examination of their staff even once, let alone on a regular basis, which is mandatory for every restaurant. When asked, most of the restaurant managers had the audacity to say that they could not afford to spend on medical examination. This means that we could be eating food served by, or even prepared by someone who is suffering from skin disease or something worse including stomach infections.

What the PMC inspectors found:

  • Cobwebs noticed on the walls of the kitchen
  •  Prepared food not covered properly
  • No care taken to prevent contamination of food by dust or insects
  • Kitchen and storeroom used for storing raw materials not located at a safe distance from bathrooms, gutter or urinals, to avoid contamination of food

What can we do?
Since laws are weak, we need to be very careful about eating out. Home food is best, but when tempted, be finicky. At least once a year, invoke the RTI Act on five of your favourite restaurants to check if they have been sent show-cause notices. Any other idea is welcome as the WHO's (World Health Organization) report is disturbing. Read this: "The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from contaminated food or water each year, and up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food service facilities. The aim of restaurant inspections is to reduce food-borne outbreaks and enhance consumer confidence in food service. Inspection disclosure systems have been developed as tools for consumers and incentives for food service operators.

Disclosure systems are common in developed countries but are inconsistently used, possibly because previous research has not determined the best format for disclosing inspection results. In India, it unarguably the worst and we must not forget that we pay through our nose even to bite into a 'dosa'.

(Vinita Deshmukh is the editor of Life 365 (www.life365.in). She is also the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at [email protected])

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