EDITORIAL: Council’s kitchen rules

SOME people will be eager to paint Newcastle City Council’s push for a bigger role in inspecting home kitchens used to make food for sale as a money-grab.

That conclusion will come naturally to many, since it is no secret that the council is desperately pressed for funds and keen to increase its income. The sometimes controversial policies of the council in the sphere of parking compliance have helped maintain awareness of that situation.

But it makes little sense to rush to judgment on the home kitchen inspection proposal until all the detail is available.

The council can certainly argue, correctly, that food safety is a vital public health concern. If its inspectors do their work carefully and tactfully, the community may be glad of the extra scrutiny.

There is nothing new about authorities expecting high standards from home kitchens that are used to make food for sale. Many local councils publish detailed information to help people comply with national food safety standards and a quick look at typical council information sheets demonstrates that most of the requirements are simple common sense.

Requirements vary a great deal too, depending on the kinds of foods being prepared. Some products obviously carry a much higher risk than others, and no sensible council inspectors would insist on applying the same standards to a granny who makes toffees for a school fete as they would to a more commercially oriented operation handling meat and other potentially risky perishables.

Indeed, the hypothetical toffee-making granny should not even reach the inspectors’ radars. An annual inspection fee of more than $400 would put an end to her endeavours, to the detriment of her fund-raising beneficiaries.

No doubt some senior council officers would have cast an eye over the financial implications of the new kitchen inspection scheme, presumably concluding that the extra fees – on top of those already levied on home salons and similar businesses – couldn’t hurt the city’s bottom line.

The scrutiny being applied to council finances is apparent in the close interest being paid by lord mayor Jeff McCloy, who yesterday declared himself at least mildly pleased with a modest improvement in performance.

An operating deficit of $30 million is still looming this year, but despite a variety of problems the council is ahead of its estimates for the latest quarter, a rare event not seen since September 2011.

In that context, any new source of cash must be welcome.