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Food Safety Thursday, 28 January, 1999, 17:52 GMT
Concerted drive to end food poisoning
E.Coli and other scares have fuelled concerns about food safety
Food poisoning cases in the UK remained static in 1998, following a huge hike the year before.

The overall number of reported food poisoning cases remained more or less constant at around 94,000 between 1997 and 1998.

Reported cases had shot up the year before. There were only around 83,000 cases in 1996.

However, an unpublished government report suggests the true number of cases could be nearer nine million because many cases are not recorded.

Some 200 people a year are estimated to die from food poisoning.

Experts say that all are preventable if safety measures are adopted. The new Food Standards Agency (FSA) will take the lead on policy related to food poisoning.

It was set up in response to recent food safety scares over salmonella, E. Coli and BSE, and has been welcomed by health and food organisations alike.

The British Medical Association called it a "step forward for public health" and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said it should boost public confidence in food safety.

Official statistics

Official figures for 1998 show there was a big drop in cases of salmonella, but a large increase in the number of infections caused by another bug, campylobacter.

Food safety experts say this could be because of the cool summer of 1998 did not provide the right conditions for salmonella to spread.

Laboratory reports on salmonella fell from 32,596 in 1997 to 23,216 in 1998.

There was also a smaller fall in cases of E. Coli 0157, the bug linked to an outbreak at a butcher's in Scotland which killed 20 people - down from 969 cases in 1997 to 902 cases in 1998.

But campylobacter, which is carried by birds and mammals and can cause acute diarrhoea, rose from 50,177 cases to 58,059.

A spokesman for the Public Health Laboratory Service, which monitors official reports of food poisoning, said: "It is not possible to identify a single cause for the trends. It could be the cool summer or increased awareness and people handling food more safely at home and in the catering industry."

Ad hoc approach

Professor Philip James, director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, prepared the plans for the FSA.

He said food safety had, up until now, been monitored in an "ad hoc" way by a variety of different agencies, including the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and local government.

"There was no coherent approach," he said. "The FSA cannot become just another advisory body.

"It has to show it has teeth so when a BSE or E. Coli crisis occurs not only does everyone know that the best scientists and everyone else are trying to sort it out and that it is not a question of saying we ought to do something as it has the power to intervene and make sure thing are done properly."

Figures from the National Audit Office show that inspection rates also vary widely, with some areas fully complying with national inspection targets and others not even meeting 50%.

Professor Jones: the FSA cannot be just another advisory body
The food scares of the 1980s also threw up concerns about the dual role of MAFF.

On the one hand, it had to protect the interests of producers and, on the other, to be responsible for monitoring standards.

The Consumers' Association says this "conflict of interests" showed the need for an independent body to monitor food safety.

It says it also shows that clearer labelling, better controls on food preparation and a more cautious approach to new technology are necessary.

The Association wants the FSA to put the protection of public health at the top of its agenda and be open and transparent.

It also wants it to have teeth to be able to intervene to protect public health throughout the food chain and to be funded mainly by the taxpayer to maintain its independence.

Agriculture minister Nick Brown says the agency will overwhelmingly be funded by the taxpayer.


However, there will be a flat rate 90 levy on all vendors who sell food.

This is controversial, particularly for small retailers, but Professor Jones says it is "peanuts" compared to the cost of illness from food safety problems.

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation said it welcomed the fact that the government would carry the burden of the cost.

The 1980s salmonella in eggs scares raised public awareness of safety
It is concerned a big levy would be passed on to the consumer and says this would hit the poorest worst as food makes up a bigger part of their budget.

"We are behind moves to set up the agency," added the spokeswoman. "We are keen to restore public confidence in food safety. But we are very concerned that the agency should cover food from the farm to the plate to be effective."

The Soil Association criticised the fact that MAFF will still retain control over farms, with the FSA only able to intervene after a problem is revealed.

Jeanette Longfield of the National Food Alliance, an umbrella group of more than 90 food campaign organisations, echoed these concerns.

She said: "Obviously we realise that the FSA faces a massive task and can't do everything, but if they are going to leave farms in the care of MAFF the agency must have very chunky powers to rap them very hard if they are not behaving themselves.

"These powers must be sufficiently robust. The early days of the agency are going to be absolutely crucial, including who is going to be on its governing body."

The NFA predicts that one of the first jobs facing the FSA will be ensuring that any recommendations resulting from the BSE inquiry, which is due to report back this summer, are properly implemented.

The agency is also likely find itself caught up in the row over genetically-modified food.

See also:

27 Jan 99 | UK Politics
27 Jan 99 | Food Safety
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