Swift action urged to curb food poisoning

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The Independent Online
The Government is not acting quickly enough to halt outbreaks of potentially fatal food poisoning, according to a leading food safety expert. Glenda Cooper, Consumer Affairs Correspondent, reports.

Professor Hugh Pennington, who carried out the investigation into the E. Coli outbreak in Scotland which killed 20 people, said yesterday that his recommendations were not being carried out quickly enough. The E. Coli outbreak happened in November 1996 and Professor Pennington published his report in April 1997.

A record number of people suffered from food poisoning last year - 100,000 cases were reported officially but scientists estimate the real number could be 10 times that figure.

The criticism comes the day before the Government publishes the long- awaited White Paper on the new, independent Food Standards Agency. It also follows warnings from the British Medical Association that all raw meat should be treated as potentially contaminated.

Speaking on BBC2's Food & Drink programme, to be screened tonight, the professor said the figures were "unacceptable" for a disease which was completely preventable.

"There's a crisis in British food production - it's not about BSE or healthy eating - it's food poisoning," he said. "If [the Government] are really serious they must implement all the recommendations in my report now ... We need to set our standards higher - it would only take a few simple steps to get rid of the majority of food poisoning cases."

Measures he said must be implemented without delay included licensing for butchers and restaurants, less reliance by supermarkets on intensively farmed foods and better training for people handling food.

"Food poisoning in the UK has now reached unacceptable levels," he said. "A million cases a year is outrageous."

"The tragedy is that most cases of food poisoning are preventable - but they're not being prevented. It is an unnecessary problem." he added. "Education and training is the key. There are too many unqualified people handling food at each stage of the food chain.

"They need to be better qualified - it is, after all, a life and death issue."

l Butchers reacted angrily yesterday to the BMA's recommendation that all raw meat should be treated as potentially contaminated.

The Meat and Livestock Commission accused doctors of "scaremongering" and exaggerating the dangers associated with meat.

"All fresh food is perishable and should be regarded as a possible source of contamination and red meat is no different to any other raw food requiring cooking before eating," said Colin Maclean, director of the MLC .

But he said singling out meat as a possible hazard was likely to "frighten and confuse" consumers.