- Up to four people a week may die from
food poisoning in England and Wales. Two thousand others suffer such bad
vomiting, diarrhoea or other illness that they are officially recorded
as food poisoning victims.
- Anything between 10 and 100 times that
number may be infected and never report that "tummy bug" to their
GPs or local authorities responsible for monitoring hygiene.
- Pasteurisation may have put paid to old
killers such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever or typhoid infecting
milk, but reported cases of food poisoning since the early 1980s have risen
seven fold in England and Wales, four-fold in Scotland, and the salmonella-in-eggs
crisis of 1988 and the E. coli 0157 outbreak in Lanarkshire in 1996 have
demonstrated the fatal potential of careless food preparation.
- Reported food poisoning cases in 1998,
according to provisional figures, dipped slightly for the first time in
years. This might suggest that food safety messages are finally getting
through, or be the result of a cooler summer, or reflect that the effect
of increased public awareness and better recording and reporting of outbreaks
in recent years is flattening out.
- The 105,070 figure is widely accepted
as just the tip of the iceberg.
- A five-year government-ordered study
to be published soon will suggest 9.5 million people, a sixth of the population,
are struck by some sort of intestinal disease at a £750 million cost
to the National Health Service, employers and victims.
- The proportion of those statistics that
can be put on dirty food has yet to be revealed.
- Some dangers are well-known. The Government
regularly warns some sections of population to avoid common foods - babies,
pregnant women and the elderly are warned off raw or soft boiled eggs,
unpasteurised milk and soft cheeses.
- Those with weak immune systems, including
HIV patients, are told not even to trust bottled water, but to boil it
- Yet other aspects of the poisoning problems
that can bring such personal misery and undermine confidence in the food
industry remain elusive. The increase in eating out and parties may be
a factor. Thirty per cent of meat eating is now done in restaurants, hotels,
and canteens and government figures from 1997 suggested that 44 per cent
of all outbreaks of reported food poisoning - involving more than one household
- might be down to outside catering. Another 17 per cent was due to catering
for large numbers in domestic kitchens.
- The rise in snacking and use of ready-prepared
meals, steep falls in "home cooking" times from 2.5 hours in
1934 to 15 minutes now, and lack of kitchen know-how have all been blamed
- Between 5 and 10 per cent of reported
food poisoning, more for some types of salmonella poisoning, may have resulted
from holidays abroad.
- Scotland, in proportion to its population,
has a far worse record than England and Wales. Northern Ireland fares better.
The reasons are unknown.
- One problem is that organisms that cause
food poisoning in humans often do little harm to the animals. Intensification
of farming has helped spread the bacteria.
- Yet drugs to combat other bacteria more
dangerous to livestock - living and dropping their dung so close together
- have probably helped build up resistance to antibiotics in humans too.
- There is rising concern over whether
animal dung in fields, slurry collected from buildings and yards and the
use of human sewage sludge on land has contributed to the food poisoning
- Animal feeds are meant to be monitored
for the bugs, while transport to market and slaughter can increase stress
on animals, meaning they deposit faeces on themselves and each other so
that some have to be turned away as not fit to be killed.
- Any amount of things can go wrong in
the slaughterhouses, with animal organs, blood and guts, including faeces,
being removed, or in the packing and processing plants where workers can
easily infect products by negligence.
- Poor storage and lack of temperature
controls in shops and supermarkets, and poor hygiene in both public and
private kitchens, are simply the last potentially weak link in the chain.
- Douglas Georgia, chairman of the Government's
Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food and a former director
of the Institute of Food Research at Norwich, says: "You and I can
keep ourselves perfectly safe if we follow simple rules - cook food well,
eat it piping hot, and, if you can't, cool it properly, keep it cold, avoid
contamination of raw to cooked food. It is an open and shut case.
- "But, it adds, "it is not a
case of victims protecting themselves, we have to get to pathogens down
in the food itself."
- Counting Chicken
- Britain used to go to work on an egg,
now it is as likely to be coming home with a chicken.
- Eating of poultry has more than doubled
in 20 years, and real prices have dropped by 30 per cent. Yet salmonella,
potentially lethal to humans, has been a fact of life in broilers for years.
- Little more than a generation ago, chicken
was a luxury food. Birds were often 20 weeks old when they were killed
for the table. Now they may be only a third that age.
- As birds matured quicker, became cheaper
to produce, and concerns grew over animal welfare on battery farms, food
poisoning pathogens have grown in strength.
- Safety tips
- How to maintain safety, advice issued
by the Government:
- * Take chilled and frozen food home quickly.
Put in fridge or freezer at once.
- * Don't overload fridges.
- * Keep coldest part of fridge under 5
degrees C. Use a fridge thermometer.
- * Store raw and cooked food separately,
with raw meat at the bottom and
- * Juice from raw meat must not drip on
- * Check use-by dates and obey them.
- * Wash hands before and after handling
- * To avoid cross-contamination, wash
work-tops and utensils between
- handling food to be cooked and food which
- * Thaw frozen meat thoroughly before
cooking or microwaving.
- * Use a meat thermometer. Don't be tempted
to cut cooking times just
- because people are waiting to eat.
- * Keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
Don't leave them standing around.
- * Throw away perishable food that has
been standing around for more than a
- couple of hours.