Food poisoning cases double over the past year

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Consumer Affairs Correspondent

The number of people claiming to have suffered food poisoning has almost doubled over the past year, even though consumers apparently know more about food safety than ever.

According to a survey published at the start of the Foodlink National Food Safety Week today, 7 per cent of people reported food poisoning this year, compared with 4 per cent in 1994. The figure is the highest in the three years the survey has been running. The Food & Drink Federation, the industry body which promotes Food Safety Week, says the results show that "much still needs to be done to increase standards of food safety in the home".

However, the increase has occurred in the face of an apparent improvement in hygiene in the home, which may suggest the problems lie in production and distribution of food rather than its preparation by the consumer.

The federation admits this year's findings indicate that "consumers' understanding of the need for good kitchen practices, which was relatively high last year, is now even higher".

The findings are in line with the long-term rise in food poisoning. In 1980 there were just over 10,000 notified cases in England and Wales; the provisional figure for 1994 is more than 82,000.

Consumers are relying more for advice on food safety on manufacturers and supermarkets and less on government bodies, although people think the Government should be doing much more than it is.

This year, 37 per cent thought it should provide "clear advice and information" to customers on food safety, compared with 61 per cent in 1989. However, only 8 per cent think the Government is actually doing so.

By contrast, 76 per cent think food manufacturers should provide information, compared with 49 per cent in 1989.

The Foodlink campaign has been criticised by consumer groups because it concentrates exclusively on domestic food hygiene and ignores the rest of the food chain, from farms to supermarkets, which many critics argue has become too complex and unwieldy.

The campaign's A to Z of Food Safety, for example, advises people not to eat raw eggs or uncooked food made from them. Elderly and sick people, babies, young children and pregnant women should only eat eggs cooked until both yolk and white are solid. Such warnings, according to critics, are an implicit acceptance of the presence of salmonella in the food chain.

Food poisoning is commonest among young people: 11 per cent those aged 15 to 24 report having had it over the past year compared with 1 per cent of the over-65s. The survey found 62 per cent of people always look at sell-by dates on food labels but only 10 per cent always look at the nutrition information. More than 2,000 people took part in the survey. Most blame failure to cook food properly for food poisoning at home but only 42 per cent say they always follow manufacturers' instructions.