Food poisoning 'is costing pounds 1bn a year': Survey suggests true loss may be higher as 2 million suffer

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOOD poisoning costs the economy pounds 1bn a year in lost production, absenteeism and health service and personal costs, according to a new study. Even that may understate the true figure because many cases are not reported.

The figure is based on research by the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre and follows the rapid rise in reported cases of food poisoning during the 1980s, from about 10,000 at the beginning of the decade to more than 40,000 10 years later.

A Mori survey conducted for the Food and Drink Federation and published yesterday suggests the real incidence may be much greater. One in 20 adults - about two million people - have suffered food poisoning over the past year, according to the 1994 National Food Safety Survey.

Bob Worcester, the chairman of Mori, who disclosed the findings at a conference in London yesterday, said the figure would probably rise to three million if children under 15 were included.

Nicholas Soames, the food minister, acknowledged that the official figures for food poisoning were 'almost certainly lower than the true incidence'. He told the conference: 'Food poisoning is clearly much too common and causes the Government the greatest concern. It is disappointing that with so much effort by so many people we cannot see a more comfortable trend.'

The figure of pounds 1bn is based on a detailed study of 1,500 individuals. It found that two-thirds of the costs come in lost production; about a fifth are borne by families and a seventh by the public sector.

Between pounds 360m and pounds 520m is attributable to salmonella. The rest is caused by other food poisoning organisms, notably camphylobacter, the incidence of which has been increasing rapidly.

Details of the study were given by Dr Paul Sockett, a principal scientist with the Public Health Laboratory Service, who said the rise in food poisoning in recent years had caused 'unprecedented' government and public concern.

Dr Sockett said it was linked with the rise of 'new' pathogens such as listeria and types of E. coli but was an international problem. Faster movement of food around the world had increased the risk. Mr Soames said the scale of food manufacturing and processing meant that weaknesses in practice could produce serious consequences. But he added: 'It would be completely unrealistic to expect that meat, milk, eggs and salad crops would ever be wholly free of the bacteria and viruses which can cause disease.'

Outbreaks can be highly expensive and alienate consumers from foods for years. Salmonella poisoning caused by contaminated baby milk powder in 1985 cost pounds 49m. According to Dr Sockett, it took 25 years for sales of canned corned beef to recover after the 1964 episode of typhoid in Aberdeen.

The food safety survey was launched last year. This year 5 per cent of adults said they had suffered a bout, compared with 6 per cent in 1993.

The most 'feared' food, according to the survey, is shellfish, which 27 per cent of those questioned say they avoid. Next is pate (16 per cent), soft cheese and cook- chill products (10 per cent) and pork (7). However, more than half said they had not been deterred from eating a particular food because of the risk of contamination.