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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 23:54 GMT
Tainted food clampdown call
Rodent hair
Rodent hair found in food (picture: Which?)
Prosecutions over horrific finds in packaged food are rare, despite 2,000 foreign objects reported each year.

An investigation by Which? magazine found one laboratory which says it sees approximately 2,000 objects found in food and medicines every year - and that the trend is upwards.

Notable examples in food include a chocolate-covered mouse, a condom and half a wasp.

Food safety - taken to court
Kerry Foods, Surrey:
Part of a metal chain backed in a ham and cheese pasty.
Fined 4,000, with 10,000 costs
John Millar and Sons, Staffordshire:
Mint contained half a wasp.
Fined 2,000 with 4,000 costs
However, there are still relatively few successful prosecutions of companies whose food is found to be tainted in this way.

In many cases, the company is able to say that it took "all reasonable steps" to satisfy food safety legislation.

Which? contacted two laboratories which analyse samples sent to environmental health officers.

One, Staffordshire County Council's scientific services team, had dealt with everything from a woodlouse to the tip of a syringe, which turned up in a cooked turkey.

Another, which did not want to be named, mentioned a tropical spider which found its way into a tin of fruit.

In a pickle

Sue Taylor found a chunk of something unusual in her Branston Pickle last year.

The cube, made of metal, had been inserted by the vegetable chopping firm supplying makers Nestle - as a way of checking whether its own metal detecting equipment was working properly.

Sue's local council, Wandsworth, decided that the company had been taking "all reasonable steps" to ensure food safety, and did not prosecute.

Sue was sent 30 as a goodwill gesture by Nestle.

Helen Parker, the Editor of Which?, wants the law tightened up so that companies cannot easily fall behind the defence of "all reasonable steps".

She said: "We think the public could be better protected if the 'reasonable steps' defence didn't automatically let companies off the hook - but could be used instead in mitigation.

"We want the Food Standards Agency to review this. We also want the law changed so that all food producers must be licensed, ensuring that staff and hygiene meet minimum standards before opening."

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said there were no plans to review the "due diligence" defence.

She said: "This defence recognises the fact that it is not possible for manufacturers to guard against every eventuality. At the same time, it does not override the fundamental obligation the Food Safety Act places on manufacturers to provide safe food.

"The Food Standards Agency has led the way in introducing licensing for butchers to tackle a high risk area.

"We currently have no plans to extend licensing to other food businesses. However, the Agency Board has agreed that the possible extension of licensing will need to be considered in detail at a later date."

See also:

04 Feb 01 | Health
Fears over food poisoning
11 Jun 01 | Health
Dirty hands 'poison thousands'
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