Hold the salmonella: Food poisoning is on a record climb and there are still cracks in our front-line defence. Liza Donaldson reports

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The Independent Online
JUNE, July and August are wicked months, as two teams of cricketers could testify after being knocked for six by food poisoning. The players had eaten a lunch that had been bought hours earlier from a sandwich bar in Essex, then carried to Suffolk in the boot of a car. When environmental health officers from Colchester Borough Council were called in, they discovered a trail of 158 people suffering salmonella enteritis. The only common ingredient in what they had eaten was mayonnaise made with fresh eggs by the sandwich bar. Contamination was proved and the retailer prosecuted.

The interesting thing about the case, one of the largest outbreaks of its kind, is that it happened after the salmonella-in- eggs food scare in 1988 that cost Edwina Currie her job as junior health minister - with all the accompanying publicity. David Statham, head of environment protection at Leicester City Council, said it demonstrated that messages about prevention of food poisoning are not getting through.

The Colchester incident also illustrated the fact that food poisoning rises regularly in summer. There are two key reasons: foods imported by holidaymakers, and hot weather picnics, barbecues, weddings and fetes.

Rising seasonal figures, however, are just part of a meteoric rise in food poisoning cases in England and Wales, up from 17,735 in 1983 to 64,882 last year. The number looks set to break all records this year with 38,024 cases already reported. Experts agree that the rise is genuine, not merely a reflection of recent changes in reporting. And they say the notified cases are just the tip of the iceberg.

More than two million people are probably affected each year. Most never seek treatment. About 60 die. The costs to the nation are estimated at more than pounds 1bn a year.

In the front line against this growing problem are some 7,000 environmental health officers employed by local councils. As the country's food police, they have powers to inspect and close down factories, shops and restaurants. They can intercept and destroy suspect food entering the country, although their powers to make spot checks on EC food consignments have been abolished with the advent of the Single European Market. This is a cause for concern among the officers, who stopped 32,000 tonnes of food at ports in the last two years, much of it from EC member countries.

Environmental health officers cannot licence food premises, despite a strong campaign for the power to do so. Nor is anyone who sets up in the food business required, as in some European countries, to have hygiene training.

Of course the officers have no jurisdiction over food preparation at home, nor do they seek it. 'If people want to poison their dinner guests, that is up to them,' said Martin Pill, assistant secretary of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. But the institution recognises that a growing number of food poisoning cases occur in the home, and it runs hundreds of courses in basic food hygiene. This year, it joined with the Food and Drink Federation, representing 2,000 manufacturers, to launch the 'Foodlink' public education campaign. But while it was a sell-out success, environmental health chiefs have not gone to the top of the popularity tables with politicians and the food lobby.

John Gummer, secretary of state for the environment and former agriculture minister, has been one of their critics in the past, citing 'pernickety inspectors enforcing finnickety rules' and the 'over-zealous and interfering attitude of a few'. But when the Department of Health sought out complaints of over-zealousness in implementing food laws, it came up with 32 and found only eight to be fully or partly justified. The institute points out that environmental health officers are responsible each year for something like 200,000 inspections of premises under food legislation.

Mark Duval, senior principal executive of the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards, said he believes the officers are victims of a changing political climate on food regulation. After the food scares of the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were given new powers under the Food Safety Act 1990 and were encouraged to use them. Some did go overboard, he conceded, but there was also much misunderstanding. Now amid a climate of deregulation and the Prime Minister's drive against red tape, he said . . . 'the pendulum has swung the other way; there has been a sort of backlash'.

His organisation has recently given guidance to inspectors to improve consistency of standards across the country and to meet criticism from the Audit Commission about lack of co- ordination. It spells out exactly what the law says, what is not compulsory and what is merely advice. For example, environmental health officers can advise on wooden chopping boards and spoons, but not ban them. And fly screens are advisable, not required.

Ian Coghill, assistant director in the environmental services department of Birmingham City Council, said the job brings 'totally conflicting pressures on all sides'. Birmingham operates a tough policy of prosecuting breaches of the law, such as rat-infestation, but Mr Coghill reckons it is fair: 'We have not prosecuted anybody for trivial things. . .'

Birmingham's firm policy has paid off, he argued. Traders know where they stand, and the number of prosecutions in the last five years has gone down. Food poisoning cases have also fallen for three years, bucking the national trend.

Birmingham joins with seven other local authorities in mock inspections to make sure everyone works to the same standards. Croydon Council's environmental health department sets a similar example: its EHO chief, Don Boon, chairs a group from London councils and said the group makes sure 'we don't go out on a limb, but do come down hard if there is a risk to health'. His department, the only one to hold a Citizen's Charter chartermark award, has a contract of service with its customers - the taxpayers - detailing what they can expect, and response times. It also carries out regular surveys, and Mr Boon said the results showed inspection was popular: 'The public want us in inspecting places far more often than we do. They want us in every few days.'

(Photograph omitted)

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