Opting for a takeaway is a big health risk, says watchdog

Consumers are risking a dose of food poisoning every time they dial for a pizza or pick up a takeaway, the Consumers' Association claimed yesterday.

An investigation uncovered "dangerous" hygiene standards across a range of fast-food establishments.

In visits to 12 takeaways, researchers from Which? magazine discovered staff who were largely ignorant of hygiene issues, dangerous food storage, cockroach infestation and toilets without washing facilities. Some were described as "dangerously dirty".

The researchers said hygiene controls had failed to keep pace with changes in the takeaway sector, which has grown since the emergence of the first fish and chip shops more than a century ago into an industry worth £2.5bn last year.

The report, "Germs to Go", is published in Which? today as part of the Consumers' Association campaign to urge the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to introduce compulsory approval for new takeaways from environmental health officers.

The consumers' group has also urged local authorities to follow the example of Birmingham City Council and East Northamptonshire Council to publicise inspection findings.

Helen Parker, editor of Which?, said: "The investigation supports [the magazine's] long-running campaign for food premises to be approved by environmental health officers before they open.

"We also think councils should publicise their inspection findings for all food premises. This would allow consumers to make informed choices about where to buy and eat food, and encourage businesses to raise their standards."

The association launched its investigation to try to discover reasons for an increasing number of food poisoning cases. About 100,000 people reported illness last year, but it is believed that up to 1.3 million consumers could have been affected.

The investigation was also prompted by a report by Which? into hygiene standards at restaurants in 2001, and a concern that food poisoning was increasing because of a lack of legal requirements for food hygiene training.

For the report released today, Which? inspectors accompanied environmental health officers to 12 outlets selling fast food in London, Manchester and North Lanarkshire. They found a complete absence of staff training in hygiene matters in four outlets. In many others, hygiene rules were ignored.

A kebab shop in Manchester was singled out because dead cockroaches littered the kitchen floor. They had been exterminated by pest control workers two weeks earlier.

Inspectors visiting a Chinese takeaway in London found raw meat and fish stored next to salad, increasing the chances of cross-contamination. In the same establishment, disinfectants were stored near vegetables. Inspectors added that food containers were "disgustingly dirty".

There was also widespread ignorance about the temperature regulations in the Food Safety Act, which requires food to be chilled below 8C to minimise bacterial growth and for food to be heated to at least 75C before serving to kill off bacteria. The report found one kebab shop risked creating food "teeming" with germs by leaving meat on a spit, unheated, overnight while a Chinese takeway left cooked ducks to cool for too long.

The Consumers' Association has called for more stringent implementation of current laws. It claims checks are seldom made on staff training in hygiene issues and a shortage of environmental health officers means they are unable to visit new outlets prior to opening.

A spokesman for the FSA, which last year launched a five-year food hygiene campaign, said: "The conditions in the premises highlighted in this report clearly broke hygiene regulations and swift action needs to be taken by the local authorities to address the problem of poor inadequate food hygiene.

"'Prior approval' is just one of the measures the agency is considering in the light of on-going experience and feedback as part of the food hygiene campaign. But getting caterers to understand the importance of good food hygiene and raising standards in the industry remains the priority."

Fast Food Nation

* The takeaway industry was born in 1863, when the first fish and chip shop opened in Mossley, near Oldham.

* The first McDonald's outlet in Britain opened in Woolwich, south-east London, in 1974. The 1,000th outlet opened at the Millennium Dome.

* The fast-food market was worth an estimated £2.5bn last year, according to the market analysts Mintel.

* Ethnic food is the largest sector, with a 40 per cent share of the market, worth £1.5bn last year. The Indian food industry alone employs 60,000 staff, and was responsible for the creation of what has become Britain's favourite dish, chicken tikka masala.

* Of the top ten best-selling Indian takeaway dishes, only one does not have chicken as the main ingredient. Lamb pasanda, a north Indian dish with a rich cream sauce, is the nation's ninth favourite, accounting for 3.5 per cent of sales. Chicken tikka masala tops the list with 14.2 per cent.

* Sandwiches are a growing part of the fast-food market. The Subway chain, which has more franchises in the US than McDonald's, plans to open 2,000 outlets in the UK.

* A survey by Mintel in 2002 found that 86 per cent of those who took part had eaten takeaway food in the previous three months. The most frequently visited takeaways were fish and chip shops, Chinese and Indian takeaways, and burger bars.

Inspections of takeaways by environmental health officers in 2001 found that 41 per cent failed to comply with food law. However, only 0.5 per cent were prosecuted.

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