Anti-bacteria this, anti-bacteria that: there's a hot new sales pitch from the people that want to sell us stuff for the kitchen. A few weeks ago it was the anti-bacteria chopping board. Now comes anti-bacteria washing-up liquid. Much-needed protection? Charles Arthur, science editor, pours cold water on it.
Just what you need: a little more terror in your life. Yesterday the megacorporation Proctor & Gamble, in its softer, kinder incarnation of Fairy Liquid, revealed "a breakthrough in kitchen hygiene". It seems that what the world needs now is anti-bacterial washing-up liquid.

Obviously, you hadn't noticed that your damp dishcloth or sponge is a death sentence. Nor, it must be said, had the rest of the world. But fortunately, P&G has, and has spent years, not to mention money and its scientists' time, to save your life.

"After a week I can contain more germs THAN YOUR KITCHEN BIN" warned the sponge on which the invitation to the new liquid's press launch was printed. P&G signed up Howard Stableford, a former presenter of Tomorrow's World, as you do (Carol Voderman, another former Tomorrow's World presenter, was enlisted to give scientific bottom to the selling of washing powder).

Stableford and a microbiologist woman showed us journalists terrible things - evil bacteria (represented by phosphorescent dust) spreading all over the kitchen from an infested raw slice of chicken. And that sponge you've been using to wipe the chopping board? One of the stirrups of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, make no mistake.

Not everyone is impressed. At the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS), which collates food poisoning statistics, the tone in Alison Lyon's voice was unmistakably dismissive: "We have loads of statistics here, and nowhere does it mention dishcloths."

This is not the first time that P&G have waved the antibacterial flag, and they are not alone. The world of marketing has decided that we're worried about bugs, or at least they'd like us to be. A few weeks ago Sainsbury's ran an advertising campaign proclaiming that the plastic chopping boards used in its stores "kill bacteria". And it's not just the UK: a frequently-used US TV advert starts with a gruesome-looking bacterium and zooms outwards until it reaches the human level, where you find that this unnamed terror is lurking on the keys of a cash machine dispenser. What's it selling? An antibacterial spray that you can use on your hands and fingers to protect you from those evil beasties.

At which point one must call a halt. What, sudenly, is the big hangup about bacteria? We have muddled along together for millions of years; indeed, without bacteria, digestion would be more difficult - a strain of E.coli lives in our gut. (That's why you get diarrhoea after you take penicillin: it kills your gut bacteria). Every cell in our body is powered by mitochondria which, billions of years ago, were actually bacteria, but which the primordial cells found useful and took aboard. Now they work for us.

Bacteria abound. They're everywhere. The overwhelming majority are benign or harmless. It's not even as if they have suddenly become more aggressive, despite the appearance in the past few years of the E.coli 0157 strain, which killed 20 people after an outbreak in Lanarkshire, Scotland last year. Standard procedures, like hot water and mild bleach, will kill the lot. Good practice - like washing vegetables before use, and using separate chopping boards for cooked and raw food - will virtually eliminate all the dangers.

Certainly the Institute of Environmental Health Officers (IEHO) is not putting out the bunting at P&G's announcement. "The problem that we have with these sorts of things is that it could lead to complacency on the part of the food handler," said a spokesman. "People might think that the necessary food handling procedures aren't really necessary: that if you squirt this over everything, then you don't have to cook food to the correct temperature, or keep cooked and raw products separate."

If you don't do that, then all the anti-bacterial washing-up in the world can't stop the bacteria such as salmonella which lurk in the raw food from crossing to the cooked food, and making you ill.

So, do untold terrors lurk in our dishcloths and sponges? Are families around Britain clutching their stomachs and croaking "It was the rag"? No, says the IEHO. "The biggest cause of food poisoning is incorrect cooking temperature for food."

Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent, who has studied the way Western culture has become obsessed with fears, commented: "We seem to be inventing new products that are entirely marketing - like bottled water, or these things from the safety issue which are there because we worry unnecessarily about our safety." P&G insisted that a washing-up liquid that killed germs had been picked by consumers as something they wanted - even more than grease-cutting, or kindness to hands. Oh, but surely a marketing giant like P&G wouldn't stir up unnecessary worries and play on them just for a profit, would it?

John Lyttle is on holiday

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