Food responsible for ‘more illness than previously thought’

Around 2.4m cases of foodborne illness occur every year in the UK, according to an analysis by the Food Standards Agency. This is more than double the number in 2009 (1m).

The new figures do not indicate an increase in total illness, or any new risk to public health, said the FSA.

FSA chief scientific advisor professor Guy Poppy said: “This work gives us a much better idea of the role of food in the spread of all infectious intestinal disease in the UK. However, this does not mean more people are getting unwell, only that we estimate food is responsible for more existing cases than previously thought.”

Indeed, the overall estimate for infectious intestinal disease, from all sources, remains the same, at around 18m cases each year in the UK.

Most of the increase in cases is due to new research into foodborne norovirus. The Agency has also published the results of a five-year study into norovirus in food, which showed that eating out accounts for an estimated 37% of all foodborne norovirus cases, with takeaways at 26%. The figures for the other main transition “pathways” in food are: open-headed lettuce on retail sale (30%); raspberries on retail sale (4%); and oysters on retail sale (3%).

Professor Poppy added: “Although the percentages may appear striking, the risk to consumers remains very low for most of these pathways. For example, on average, an individual would only end up with norovirus once in every 15,000 portions of open-headed lettuce – that would take around 40 years. Oysters pose the highest risk per serving, with illness likely on average once in around 160 servings.”

The FSA said the research reinforces the need for the highest standards of good personal and food hygiene practices in catering establishments and at home to avoid infection.

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