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Food Amendment Bill 2021

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Tags: Health, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Speaker, the Greens will be supporting this food amendment bill. I have a number of comments to make about it. First of all, this is about managing food security and food safety and keeping Tasmanians safe in our very rapidly changing environment. It is rapidly changing, not just from the changing nature of infectious and transmissible diseases. We are all fully aware of how rapidly - we all understand and we are mini experts in how rapidly viruses can produce variance or mutate.

There are so many other situations that food-borne diseases can change in the nature of transmission, reproduction and proliferation. It is essential that we have environmental health officers in our state who are skilled, trained, supported and provided with all the tools and resources that they need to be able to keep up to date with changing environmental circumstances and drivers of patterns of disease and risky situations that will develop.

With the IPCC predictions of rapidly accelerating climatic changes, all of which will produce environmental conditions, changes to the air and the water and the soil, all the places where different pathogens thrive and circulate within. Those changes in the environment will produce changing patterns of pathogens and changing circumstances for human disease.

I am a bit concerned reading this bill and looking at this. This is important. It is made out this is a very important mechanism for the Director of Public Health to be able to apprise him or herself of how the standards and the regulations that have been established across Tasmania are being complied with and how well they are being upheld essentially.

However, it is the last piece of information at the top of the tree and it is too late. If the work is not being done at the beginning then having a database that records or does not record whether people are complying does not help. An outbreak has already occurred, or a circumstance has already existed where there has been an environmental catastrophe with a spill, or some emissions have escaped and have created damage in the local or wider environment.

What I am not hearing is what we are doing as a state, what the minister and the department are doing to support the recruitment and retention of skilled environmental health officers in Tasmania in order to carry out the work they have to do. It is critical work. My background is in public health and epidemiology. Environmental health is the cornerstone of public health. Fifteen of the 20 years of extra life that we as a population in Tasmania hopefully will live on average, have come from public health interventions over the last 150 to 200 years. So, it sounds like it is one of those things which is outdated but it could not be more of a modern and necessary profession. That is one of the key problems: environmental health officers and the work they do is almost invisible. I believe for the average Tasmanian and local government, the environmental health officer is just an appendage, a small appendage, somewhere down the end of the corridor and I really do not think people understand how important this work is.

When we have natural disasters that will increase, floods, extreme wind events, bushfires, we have global pandemic in train now. There are more zoonoses that are very plausible. The connections between humans and the environment, the natural world, is increasing. We are pushing into every forested, natural habitat that is left on the planet. We continue to trade in wild animals. The likelihood of another global pandemic of a different sort is high. This means we need people who are very skilled and supported to do complex work.

Environmental health officers have around 10 pieces of legislation that they are responsible for administering. They are really the front line of the health protection and environmental management system workforce, particularly at the local level. They are responsible for everything from air, water, soil, pollution, chemical exposure, environmental degradation, also climate change, radiation, it is a huge list.

I want to speak to an excellent body of work that has been undertaken by Professor Roger Hughes, the Director of the Public Health program at the School of Medicine in Tasmania. This report was produced last year, November 2020, called 'Strengthening the Frontline Health Protection and Environmental Management Workforce in Tasmania - a workforce development strategic plan for environmental health officers'. This is a substantial body of work and Professor Hughes summarises the workforce challenges for the environmental health workforce.

I will summarise what he has found. There is limited workforce planning or monitoring in Tasmania and there is limited accurate data about the workforce size, the attributes, the distribution, and the development needs of the workforce. Environmental health officers have delegated responsibility to enforce around 10 pieces of legislation, particularly the Public Health Act but also in this case, the Food Act and the Environmental Management and Pollution Control Act (EMPCA).

The people that they spoke to, the stakeholders and the environmental health officers that he spoke to in the work that he did, reported a responsibility creep, they said, without an additional allocation of resources to enable them to do the work. This is one of the things that is happening in this bill. This bill requiring a centralised database is excellent. It requires people to do another and a different sort of uploading. I do not know whether that is already information that must already be produced, probably it is. It is probably done in some written form or maybe it is not centralised. I dare say this is a more efficient way of gathering information. Nonetheless, the outcome of this bill will be that there is a new impost on environmental health officers at local governments, something else new to learn. I am aware from my experience on the Huon Valley Council that environmental health officers kept getting dished up with more legislative responsibilities, yet there was no more environmental health officers year on year who had been funded to do the work in local councils, particularly small local councils.

Professor Hughes founds that there is an estimated deficit of at least 40 full time equivalent environmental health officers in Tasmania relative to servicing the existing environmental health risk items and regulatory responsibilities. That is huge. That is enormous. That represents a real risk. When we are talking about these people doing the incredibly important work of checking compliance to make sure food systems are safe and secure, a lack of 40 full time equivalent environmental health officers is of serious concern.

He said as a result environmental health officer practice is necessarily prioritised to looking at reactive investigations and enforcing legislative responsibilities instead of doing what is necessary, which is the sustainable upstream prevention practices. So, it is definitely the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff in Tasmania. Instead of trying to prevent circumstances that would lead to outbreaks, or spills, or food security breaches, they are instead dealing with things once they have happened and reports have come in. Professor Hughes said that leads to an elevated public health risk, which is the result.

He finds that there is no local workforce preparation. There is a lack of supply in Tasmania of environmental health officer graduates, which contributes to a real problem with workforce recruitment and retention. There is an unequal distribution of environmental health officers across the state. Environmental health officers' services and an increased exposure of environmental health risks in regional and remote communities.

In other words, people in Tasmania are less safe from an environmental health point of view in regional and remote communities than they are in urban centres for the reason that there are not enough skilled and trained environmental health officers who are employed in regional and remote parts of Tasmania.

He also finds that the credentialing of the workforce is outdated and loosely enforced. He found evidence of pockets of under-qualified environmental health officers, also of non compliance with the Director of Public Health credentialing requirements under certain acts, and a lack of monitoring of people's credentials to do the work they were supposed to do.

Our environmental health officers have some of the lowest salaries in the country and the salary levels are not aligned with other accredited health professionals. That means we have real difficulties in recruiting students and staff to be trained as environmental health officers and have careers in the area and of retaining people. Not only do we not train people properly in Tasmania, we have great difficulties in attracting them from elsewhere because of these low salaries and also, as Professor Hughes finds, limited career progression pathways.

This is not a good place for Tasmania when it comes to protecting ourselves in the current rapidly risk environment. All is not lost. Professor Hughes has a great list of recommendations and if the minister is not aware of this report, he might like to have a look at it. Professor Hughes recommends as a high priority that there needs to be an exploration of models and mechanisms for state-wide environmental health officer workforce management and coordination so we can consolidate our workforce.

It is currently employed by the local councils and the environmental health team in the Public Health services but he recommends we create a state-wide environmental health service, that services local councils based on need and equity that is managed at the state-wide level and/or he provides an option, that we create and recruit two local government environmental health officer workforce coordinator roles that have a state-wide environmental health workforce development and coordination as a primary function.

Either way, the state government needs to take responsibility for the desperate, inconsistent and inadequately trained and resourced environmental health workforce across Tasmania in local councils. There has to be responsibility at the state government level for centralised training and servicing either where this is done centrally and services provided to councils or where there is a coordination management role for state government.

The other priority is to invest in the environmental health workforce over the next five years so that we can achieve a full-time equivalent workforce of 85 full-time equivalent people by 2025. That would be an additional 25 full-time equivalent people within the next four years within this term of government. That does not seem unreasonable, given the challenges ahead of us and the findings of this report.

I strongly recommend that the minister and department have a look at this report if it is not already being well perused. Possibly people are involved in this because it was a very thorough report in terms of conversations with people across the state.

It is important that we recognise that the risks for food security and food safety in Tasmania in the future will only increase. In that context everything that we can do in advance to prepare our workforce and to support them for the good work that they do is a responsibility that we have to take up with alacrity.

Environmental health officers struggle on and people basically do not even know that it is a job and a career that you could seek out. We have a lot of work to do. The creation of the database from the Director of Public Health is important for having consistent information. It is obviously important to understand when compliance is not occurring but in itself is certainly not going to be enough to ensure that we are tracking the risks to Tasmanians for food security and food safety.

We have to be working with the environmental health officers who are putting the information in in the first place making sure there is enough of them, making sure they have the right skills, and making sure they are based evenly around the state as required. That is the sort of approach we need to help us with the challenges of climate change and the transmission of food pathogens in the future.