Is it safe to eat out?
Are cases of food poisoning increasing as nearly one in five food outlets fall below the legal food safety standards?
In the UK there are 70,000 to 80,000 cases of food poisoning reported each year. The number of unreported cases could potentially be millions.
Food poisoning is any illness brought on by eating contaminated food. It is usually caused by pathogenic microbes. The illness varies in severity. Those most at risk people who are very old, very young, malnourished or have poor immune systems. Some food poisoning can even be fatal.
With 18% of food premises reported as having very poor food hygiene, this is clearly a significant problem.
One survey revealed that 12% of UK consumers (5.5 million people) said that they had suffered from food poisoning within the last 12 months. 76% of them (4.2 million people) believed that this illness was caused by food that had been prepared outside the home. With the migration towards a national "scores on the doors" system underway, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is certainly playing its part to improve food safety.
The Scores on the doors system was approved by the Food Standards Agency back in December. This is a six-tier system that will give consumers clear information about hygiene standards in food businesses. The system is for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland will continue with a two-tier system which shows pass or improvement required.
The new six-tier system is intended to encourage food businesses to strive for high levels of food hygiene, rather than just meeting the bear minimum to achieve a pass. Businesses are given the option of displaying their food hygiene rating in a prominent position, hence the name scores on the doors. This will enable consumers to make informed choices about where they eat, which is important when 18% of food outlets have very poor standards.
Critics of the new scheme have said that Environmental Health Officers are not there to judge, they are there to enforce the law. Despite what the critics say though, pilot schemes of the new system proved to be very successful. Norwich introduced the scheme and quickly saw a decrease of around two thirds in the number of premises that scored zero stars. The number of premises obtaining four or five starts also doubled.
Food hygiene legislation does clearly state that all food handlers must have an appropriate knowledge of food hygiene, which makes it hard to understand why restaurants that maintain standards so far beneath the legal requirements can still be trading. Some food poisoning bugs can take several days to take effect, so by the time the patient feels ill, they cannot always pinpoint the cause. Is this how some of these restaurants are getting away with it? It is only becoming easier for food premises to comply with the law. The government provides a free safer food better business pack aimed at small catering businesses such as restaurants, cafes and takeaways. It has been developed by the Food Standards Agency working with catering businesses to be practical and easy to use.
It is also possible for food handlers to take an online food hygiene course to gain all of the knowledge that they need to operate safely without even leaving their home or work. Experts believe that the over 50% of cases of food poisoning are due to the bacterium Campylobacter, and that over 20% are a result of Salmonella infection. It only takes a small amount of Campylobacter to cause very severe abdominal pains, so severe that they can even be mistaken for appendicitis. Experts also believe that that the majority of Campylobacter poisoning cases could be avoided if good hygiene was practised in the kitchen, when transporting foods, and by thorough cooking of foods. Lets hope that food hygiene standards will improve when the new system is in full flow so that we can all concentrate on the enjoyment of eating out rather than the worry that we may be eating in an establishment with poor standards and end up with food poisoning.