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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Tackling a bug's life
Feel a bit iffy about that lamb curry you ate last night? It's the job of environmental health officers to hunt out the nasties that cause food poisoning. Here, Tracey Wood, of Oldham, explains a typical day fighting bugs.

My friends always say to me, 'I don't know how you do your job, coming face-to-face with cockroaches'.

Mice and cockroaches I can cope with. But put a spider in front of me and I go to pieces.

Cockroach on crisps
Cockroaches thrive in dirty conditions
My day started with a phone call from someone complaining about an insect they'd found in a takeaway curry.

It did look like a small fly, but under the magnifying glass, it turned out to be a small vegetable stalk.

Then I went to a nursing home. These can be quite high risk because the elderly can't fight off food poisoning like younger people can. It went fine - the staff had been well trained in food hygiene.

Worst case scenario

I spent the afternoon in court, in case I had to give evidence in a prosecution against a local restaurant.

Tracey Wood
Tracey Wood: "I'm quite choosy about where I eat"
They had been preparing food outside on a fire escape. They even had a fridge outside, covered in bird droppings, and mouse droppings on the food preparation table.

I'd been there six months beforehand, and pointed out the same problems. Yet when I went back, the place had got even dirtier.

The proprietor pleaded guilty to eight food hygiene offences, and was fined 9,000 and 500 in court costs.

Safety in numbers

A colleague and I worked late to visit a local takeaway only open in the evenings. We always go out in twos at night.

Cod 'n' chips
Dodgy tum? That cod may not be to blame
I tend to go on inspections prepared for the worst: a camera with lots of film to take photos of pests or dirty equipment; and sample pots for collecting dropping or insects.

I also take emergency prohibition notices, which give us the power to close the really bad places down. But I've only had to issue one in the six years I've been on the job.

This takeaway was a bad one. We found mouse droppings in a tub of coleslaw. The owner said: 'We're not using that one, it was left over from last night.' He pulled out another tub, and that had droppings as well.

The owner volunteered to close that night, phoned the pest control company, and then started cleaning.

When I got home, I phoned to see if I could order any food. Nobody answered. But if he had reopened, I would have had to serve an emergency notice.

'Anything you say...'

Last year, I had a complaint of undercooked chicken at a local restaurant. A colleague warned me that the proprietor could be awkward, so I took another officer with me.

Checking a freezer
On the job, checking a too-warm freezer
He did indeed get aggressive, saying we had no right to go into the kitchen whilst he was open. We do actually have the power to enter any food premises at any time, but he was shouting, red in the face, shaking his fist...

I had to caution him, like the police do, to which he replied, 'Oh, I'm really scared.'

He eventually let us in, but he was prosecuted for obstruction and fined 400.

Prevention the best cure

The job's changed in the past few years to put more emphasis on hazard analysis - helping people spot what can go wrong.

Elderly woman with carer
Officers regularly inspect resthomes
We're setting up courses in which local business people will look at every dish they sell, from the ingredients they buy in, to how it's stored, prepared and served.

After all, even if a place appears to be clean, bad working practices - such as staff not washing their hands - can cause food poisoning.

People are always convinced they got food poisoning from the takeaway they ate last night, but it's usually not the case.

The most common form of food poisoning - campylobacter - takes at least three days for the symptoms of diarrhoea to show.

'It hasn't put me off'

I tend to be quite choosy where I eat. But I do love eating out - I love food, I love dining at restaurants.

My favourite bit of the job is seeing a dirty, poorly-run restaurant transformed into a place I'd be happy to eat in myself.

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Tracey Wood
on her worst case

See also:

28 Feb 01 | Health
04 Feb 01 | Health
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