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Tuesday, January 12, 1999 Published at 16:26 GMT


Salmonella remains a threat

Edwina Currie: Her comments sparked controversy

Ten years after she caused controversy by claiming that most egg production in the UK was infected with salmonella, fomer Tory minister Edwina Currie has discovered that the safety of our eggs and poultry is by no means guaranteed.

When the then health minister Edwina Currie warned in 1988 that UK egg production was blighted by salmonella the sales of eggs fell by a half and the government was forced to spend thousands to reassure customers.

Mrs Currie lost her job over the remark, and her reputation was badly damaged.

However, in a special investigation for BBC television's Frontline Scotland, Mrs Currie has found that salmonella is still a very real problem for the egg and poultry industry.

In the last decade the numbers of cases of salmonella poisoning have continued to rise. In 1997 there were 40,000 cases in the UK.

Professor Hugh Pennington, of Aberdeen University, admits that salmonella is still a problem.

He said: "I don't know why we have a problem with salmonella still, probably because we have not worked hard enough to try to get rid of it.

"We shouldn't have a problem with salmonella. We know how to sort it out. Other people have sorted it out, we should have had it sorted out long ago."

The cases reported are just the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone with salmonella will go to their GP, and even then they have to know how to diagnose it and send a sample to a lab to have it confirmed.

Salmonella poisoning can cause diarrhoea, severe abdominal pain, vomiting and fever. In the old and the sick it can be fatal.

There are over two thousand types of salmonella. But scientists are particularly concerned by one type - Salmonella Enteritis. It is principally associated with chicken and eggs.

[ image: Some chickens are infected]
Some chickens are infected
The bacteria lives in the guts of chickens and so can infect both the bird and the egg.

However, because only a very small proportion of eggs are infected the chances of buying the poisoned ones are pretty small.

The odds of finding infected chickens on sale though are far higher.

The latest figures from the Government's own public health laboratory suggest that one in three chilled chickens sold in British shops carry salmonella.

Special investigation

Frontline Scotland bought a whole chicken and chicken legs from three supermarkets in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

A microbiological analysis carried out at Heriot Watt University found that there was a likelihood of salmonella in one out of the six samples.

The rogue chicken was bought at Sainsbury's in Glasgow. The store said it was generally accepted there was an inherent risk of salmonella in raw chicken, and that the meat must be cooked thoroughly before eating.

Professor Brian Austin, of Heriot Watt University, said: "The key point was where they talk about the inherent risk. I would say that we should be striving to reduce this risk so that there is no salmonella in poultry."

[ image: Professor Hugh Pennington:
Professor Hugh Pennington: "Shops should not sell poisoned goods"
Professor Pennington said it was wrong that a shop should sell something that is poisoned.

"We do know that there's still an unacceptable risk of food poisoning bugs on certain kinds of food from the shops, and nobody should be putting up with that, least of all the public, least of all the consumer."

Peter Chapman, vice president of the National Farmers Union in Scotland, claimed that less than 10% of chicken is still carrying salmonella. In England, the industry claims the figure is 15%-20%.

The definitive answer will not be known until a government survey is published in 18 months time.

Even in eggs the infection rate has only fallen from about one in 650 in 1991 to about one in 700 today.

Last November the egg industry announced a £4million programme to vaccinate chickens against salmonella. In addition eggs would be date coded and hygiene given a new priority at egg farms.

A new code guarantees salmonella free eggs by the end of the year. However, 30% of the industry has not signed up to the new code.

Mrs Currie's conclusion?

"For the moment, whether it's eggs or chicken, it's still left to us to cook our way out of trouble," she said.

"Ten years after I first warned about salmonella completely safe poultry and eggs are still not guaranteed in the supermarkets."

Mrs Currie's full report "Home to Roost" is broadcast on BBC Scotland on Tuesday at 10pm.

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