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Wednesday, 22 August, 2001, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
Former Health Minister Edwina Currie quizzed
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Half of the fresh chickens on supermarket shelves are infected with food poisoning bacteria, a survey by BBC One's 4x4 programme has revealed.

Campylobacter was found in 69% of chickens tested for the investigation. The bacteria can cause stomach pains and diarrhoea. It is found in undercooked meat, poultry, untreated milk and water.

The survey is just the latest in a series of food scares which show just how little we really know about food safety regulation and if it is even of a high enough standard for human consumption.

Can we be sure that the food we're buying is safe? Do you think supermarkets could do better? Should there be more stringent hygiene standards in restaurants?

Former Conservative Health Minister Edwina Currie will report on the results in a special investigation on BBC1's 4x4 programme at 1930 BST on Monday 20 August.

She joined us for a live forum and answered your questions.

Highlights of interview


Gary from North London asks: what do I do if I find a problem with something I buy from the supermarket? Should I report it to the supermarket or is there somewhere else I can go?

Edwina Currie:

The Trading Standards always have people around - they are run by your local council. They vary - some of them are excellent, some of them are, shall we say, low down on the local council's list of priorities. The Trading Standards are always very good. If you are ill and samples have to be taken as to what has made you ill, then that is going to be taken out of your hands because the prosecution may come from the Food Standards Agency - it may come from the local authority. The local authority is quite strong - it has power to close an establishment. The problem sometimes is that it reopens three days later with a different name on the heading.

But you should always complain. If something makes you poorly and you are not happy about it, don't just put it down to chance or fate - someone put the bug there and should be held to account. That is one of the problems - I think we all think food poisoning is just as normal as, say, in growing toenails or corns and it isn't - it does have a cause and it does have an outcome and it could be stopped if more of us made a fuss.


Lyn, Kingswood, Surrey says I picked up campylobacter from eating chilled pre-cooked chicken, bought from a high street supermarket. I was very ill for a number of weeks and ended up on antibiotics from the doctor. Are there any plans to investigate these pre-cooked chicken products? Surely the bugs should not be there in the first place?

Edwina Currie:

That is the right thing - that's what she's put her finger on - it is in the product when it leaves the abattoir. This is a very, very infectious bug - it is very easy to contaminate the chicken meat with it. If you had a very clean abattoir and you put in, during that day, one chicken that had got the bug, everything that leaves that evening will have the bug. It can be very, very difficult to eradicate and that is part of the problem. We need rather better disinfectants and other cleaning materials that will not affect the taste - around your kitchen, for example, bleach will do the job. You should make a habit ever so often of wiping over it with bleach - so they should in hospitals and everywhere else.

The problem isn't just in the cook-chill - it is in frozen, it is in fresh and it is in fresh cooked, if it hasn't been cooked thoroughly. You then take it out of the bag, it is on your hands then you handle your vegetables, your bread, your knife and chopping board etc. and you are spreading it around - that's the problem.


Ian Taylor from London asks how safe is supermarket food packaging? Does it keep the food fresh? Has it ever been tested for safety?

Edwina Currie:

One of the reasons why PVC packing changed some years ago was that they discovered that the cling-film they were using at the time if it was wrapped around anything that had fat in it - the fat was beginning to dissolve the plastic and that was a potential health hazard so they changed it. I think they watch the packaging very carefully. But in a country like the Soviet Union where there will be plenty of produce in one part of this huge country and there are people in need and poverty in another part - one of the problems is that they can't get the produce safely from one side to the other. They don't have the packaging and transportation systems that we have. We should be pleased - there is very little wastage as a result in our food. We get it in a very, very good state - we get it fresh, we get it chilled, we get it refrigerated and as a result when we do identify a problem of food safety, there really ought to be something we do about it.


Charlotte in Leeds asks from what you found out would you still trust what supermarkets stock on their shelves? Are you happy to shop in a supermarket?

Edwina Currie:

Yes. This idea that the only safe shop is a small scuffy one is a load of nonsense. The big chain supermarkets are very careful indeed about their standards and they will withdraw from their shelves anything that begins to show up any problems - they are very quick about it and they push the producers hard. The producers will tell you that the supermarkets are the bane of their lives because they want very, very high standards but cheaply - which is what we all want. So no, I am perfectly happy with that.

Campylobacter in particular is found in wild birds so whatever system of production you have - free range, chickens out in a shed in the garden etc. - if there were wild birds around then the compylobacter gets into our chickens. I think we are going to have to think hard about. I hate to say it - but I think there may have to be some consideration of breeding in some kind of resistance. Whether we do it in a test tube and call it genetic modification - GM - or whether we do it by intelligent breeding programmes, is for other people to decide.


Elizabeth from America says I wish that supermarkets were as clean in America, as they are in England. I have to check all dates, as I regularly find food that is out of date over here. The choices of food in the UK, especially pre-prepared food are far superior to those in the U.S.A. You should see the conditions under which some foods are both served, prepared and stored, especially overnight. The UK is lucky to have so many rules and regulations regarding food. Not to mention how bad the conditions are, under which food is stored, prepared and cooked in U.S.A. restaurants.

Edwina Currie:

Maybe we are not doing too badly. There is a hit book that has come out recently in America called Kitchen Confidential which is all about what really goes on in some restaurant kitchens and I have no doubt it goes on here as well. Elizabeth is being very nice to us. But it is also a question of what we do in our homes. The person who e-mailed earlier and who said that she had been poorly with campylobacter for weeks - she could have been infected anywhere. She could have bought a chicken sandwich, she could have had a piece of chicken lying around in the fridge - it could have been a gift of a free-range chicken from somewhere. But the moment you ingest that stuff, you can be very seriously ill and you will know about it.


Jaysson Palmer in Scotland says I am a big food fan and am very worried to find out that people responsible for its preparation do not take proper care. I believe that the most effective way to stop shops selling infected food would be to close them down; it would effect their profits. What plans are there to introduce meaningful penalties that will be implemented?

Edwina Currie:

There are penalties for producing dirty food and we all have to be very rigid and strict about it and make the point also of complaining - if we don't like what we see we should make a fuss about it and don't shop there. If the shop is dirty, if the take-away is filthy, if there is grease all around the floor, if you can see a cockroach - what on earth are you doing in there?

The same applies in your own kitchen - actually the dirtiest kitchens in this country are in domestic houses not least because there isn't an inspector coming to see it. So from time to time it makes sense to clean out your kitchen, have a spring clean, do all the rather old-fashioned things that our grandmas used to do. Also throw away food when it gets past its sell-by date - you don't need it. If you save money and you end up ill, that is going to cost you money in the long run.

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