UK Food Poisoning Surging -
Bacteria More Elusive Than Ever
By James Meikle
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 first.
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 too.
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 epidemic.
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 foods.
* Check use-by dates and obey them.
* Wash hands before and after handling different foods.
* To avoid cross-contamination, wash work-tops and utensils between
handling food to be cooked and food which is not.
* 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.