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Food Poisoning

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What change there has been in the number of confirmed reports of food poisoning in the United Kingdom since the Food Standards Agency was established.

My Lords, the Food Standards Agency was established in 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, there was a 19.2 per cent decrease in confirmed reports of food poisoning cases, as monitored by the FSA. Although there has been a small increase in cases since 2005, the Food Standards Agency continues to undertake work to reduce food poisoning.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In doing so, I declare my interest as a small food producer. Does she agree that the Food Standards Agency and local authority environmental health officers should be very much congratulated on the improvements that they have made to small food-producing businesses? In the old days when you got food poisoning, the local caff had caused it. Does she agree that the problem now is that food poisoning is caused within the home, and that much more stress needs to be put on each of us accepting responsibility for our health and avoiding food poisoning by observing the Food Standards Agency’s current campaign?

My Lords, the noble Countess makes an important point, and I thank her very much for her comments about the Food Standards Agency’s work with businesses and the food industry. She is completely correct that it is everyone’s personal responsibility to ensure good food hygiene. The FSA has had a role in providing high quality evidence of and information about good food hygiene. It has a cooking bus—a mobile classroom—that visits schools and community projects, and it has provided materials and training aids to schools. Indeed, educational material on food competency for food skills is part of the framework that it is encouraging schools to undertake. Parents have a very important role to play in teaching their children good food hygiene and how to cook.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that perhaps the Question should also have referred to water poisoning? Given the serious water pollution in some areas, is she satisfied with the testing that various water boards are doing, and will she comment on the present outbreak?

My Lords, the quality of drinking water supplies in England and Wales is the responsibility of the Drinking Water Inspectorate. The FSA is responsible for the safety of bottled water and water used in the production of food. The Drinking Water Inspectorate has been informed about the current incidents in Northampton and Daventry. So far, it believes that there is no need for any serious worry about the quality of the drinking water, which is fine. However, Anglian Water, the local supplier of water, has issued a precautionary notice.

My Lords, why is it not made mandatory for restaurants to publicise on their premises their scoring under the local authority hygiene standards inspection system? The public could then boycott dirty premises. The restaurants could put up the scoring number, letter or whatever next to the little notices that they have on their doors that say “Visa” or “Mastercard”. Then all the world could see.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a useful point. The Food Standards Agency’s line throughout its existence has been to work with business, with great success, to ensure that its food standards hygiene targets are met and that people can eat out in safety.

My Lords, the campaigns for safe food are very welcome, but will the Minister confirm that somewhere in the school curriculum is teaching about safe food and how to prepare it, as there used to be long ago? Will she also say what steps the Food Standards Agency will take after reports that an animal variant of MRSA has entered the food chain?

My Lords, in answer to the first question, I hinted at the important role that schools have to play, and at the importance of the re-emergence of cookery classes. In answer to the noble Baroness’s second question, I say that putting good food hygiene principles into practice will minimise the risk of all food poisoning bacteria, including those resistant to antibiotics. Two organisms that cause hospital-acquired infections have recently been linked to food and food-producing animals. The potential risk is being considered at the moment by cross-government scientific committees, including the Defra Antimicrobial Resistance Co-ordination Group.

My Lords, far be it from me, as a former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, to comment on the past successes of the agency. However, I ask the Minister for her views on the point that she mentioned about the recent upturn in cases of food poisoning after a five-year sequence of decline. As I understand it, this upturn is largely due to campylobacter, which is common in chickens. A possible explanation for this upturn is the increase in consumption of organic chicken. It is known from a number of surveys that organic chicken is more likely than conventionally produced chicken to be infected with campylobacter. Does the Minister agree that consumers should be advised of the additional risk of consuming organic chicken?

My Lords, that is a very interesting question. The FSA is neither for nor against organic food. Evidence does not support any claim that organic food is either safer or more nutritious than conventional food. As far as concerns microbiological safety, evidence does not show that organic food is safer than conventional food. However, the noble Lord is correct to say that the increase is almost entirely due to an increase in campylobacter, which is probably linked to chicken. We are not yet sure about that; research is going on. The key point is that when you are eating chicken you need to ensure that it is cooked thoroughly.