Personal hygiene 'is key to food safety'

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Concerns over food safety have led to an overemphasis on detecting minute quantities of chemical additives at the expense of preventing thousands of cases of food poisoning caused by caterers not washing their hands.

A leading food scientist has criticised a fundamental "imbalance" in food safety where testing that involved high-tech equipment is preferred to the low-tech approach of training people in personal hygiene.

Peter Berry Ottaway, of the Institute of Food Science and Technology, who is also an adviser to the EU on food safety, said that up to 80,000 people a year suffered from food poisoning. Yet few if any cases of ill health could be attributed to artificial chemicals that had to be meticulously monitored by law with the most sensitive tests on the market. He said that in one recent case a batch of fish oil costing between £10m and £20m had to be destroyed because it was a trillionth of a gram over the legal limit for dioxin, a substance that can cause cancer when ingested at high enough doses.

"It's an inevitable problem for the legislators. We are now able to measure down to a certain level so inevitably the limits go down to those levels," Mr Ottaway told the British Association. "Controversy is brewing up among food scientists and toxicologists ... The emphasis should be on controls that affect people directly. There is a paradox that we can't control food poisoning in catering establishments."

The process that is supposed to ensure that catering establishments follow the basic principles of hygiene has broken down, with few registers held by local authorities being kept up to date, he said.