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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The food poisoning myth
Richard Sprenger of Highfield Publications discusses food poisoning.
Most people believe that there are between 4 and 9 million confirmed cases of food poisoning in England and Wales each year, originating from commercial food premises, and the number of cases keeps increasing.
This perception results from the information published by the Food Standards Agency following the 1995 Study of Infectious Intestinal Disease (IID) and the results of a recent survey of around 3,000 people suffering from diarrhoea and/or vomiting, which were extrapolated to indicate that over 4 million people blame restaurants and takeaways for making them ill.
If food poisoning is considered to be an illness that results from the consumption of contaminated or poisonous food, there is no scientific justification for suggesting that there are millions of cases of food poisoning each year or that the number of cases has increased over the last ten years.
There is even less evidence to suggest that commercial food businesses, especially catering operations, are responsible for the increasing levels of food poisoning. Unfortunately, the publication of these statistics creates a perception of reducing standards of hygiene and fuels the public and political belief that drastic measures are required to improve food safety. This in turn creates a demand for more onerous and, arguably, unnecessary hygiene legislation. We already have very effective food safety legislation and if adequate resources were provided to enforce this legislation, standards would continue to improve.
The main reason for the confusion over the statistics is the failure to clearly differentiate between cases of diarrhoea and vomiting and cases of food poisoning. The commonest causes of diarrhoea and vomiting are viruses, of which less than 10 per cent are foodborne, and Campylobacter of which around 30 per cent may not be foodborne.
Person to person spread, animals and environmental contamination are probably much more common causes of diarrhoea and vomiting than the consumption of contaminated food. Furthermore, less than 50 per cent of the E. coli O157 cases are currently thought to be foodborne.
Notwithstanding the misleading implications in the published information on food poisoning statistics, there is no question that food poisoning outbreaks are preventable and levels of food poisoning must be reduced. The FSA is to be commended for targeting a 20 per cent reduction in food poisoning by 2006, however, their strategy could be modified to take account of the percentage of non-foodborne cases of diarrhoea and vomiting caused by their targetted organisms.
Furthermore, Norwalk-like viruses, Staphylococcus aureus and, perhaps, Bacillus cereus could also have been included within the targeted organisms.
The FSA will base the 20 per cent reduction on laboratory reports of the following targeted organisms:
E. coli O157; and
The relatively low number of laboratory reports of the last three organisms mean that the quantitative success or failure of the FSA will be based on the number of isolates of Salmonella and Campylobacter.
The following base figures against which the reduction will be measured have been reduced by about 20 per cent to take account of the number of cases originating abroad.
Laboratory reports (England and Wales):
Salmonella – 11,456.
Campylobacter – 43,415.
E. coli O157 – 790.
Clostridium perfringens – 124.
Listeria – 98.
The 1995 Study of IID suggested that the actual number of cases was three times greater for Salmonella and eight times greater for Campylobacter. In other words, a total of 34,368 and 347,320 respectively. Given that around 30 per cent of Campylobacter are likely not to be foodborne, this means that the total number of food poisoning cases could be around 280,000. This figure is obviously much lower than the millions alleged earlier and even allowing for the significant under-reporting of Clostridium perfringens, Staphylococcus aureus and Norwalk-like viruses, it is unlikely to be anywhere near the millions of cases suggested. Obviously, this relates to all food poisoning including cases originating from the home, retailing and manufacturing, and appears to confirm that the 4 million cases attributed to catering and takeaways was a complete myth.
Furthermore, if the organisms not included in the targeted list are responsible for a much greater number of food poisoning cases, one must ask the obvious question, “why weren’t they included in the 20 per cent reduction target”.
For more information on training in food safety visit Highfield Publications’ Web site: www.highfield.co.uk