The hygiene mythbuster

01 August 2016

From fraud to poisoning, Cleaning Matters columnist Seán Derrig explains why food may not be so glorious after all

Stories of ‘food fraud’ – where you’re served something other than what’s on the label – are on the increase and it seems nothing is sacred with vendors of counterfeit meat, vodka, shellfish, herbs, spices and eggs all being prosecuted recently. You might think you had a few drinks and a curry last night but it could be that your entire evening’s consumption was not what it seemed. But there’s a more serious, largely unreported food threat looming.

In the last decade food hygiene inspections decreased by 15% – that’s about a thousand fewer establishments per week. Little wonder prosecutions over the period fell by 35% – and Campylobacter cases rose by exactly the same percentage. Campylobacter is the UK’s leading cause of bacterial food poisoning. If you’re unfortunate enough to be one of the 280,000 cases annually there’s a good chance you got it from one of the 59% of supermarket chickens in which it’s present.

In the UK over a million people a year suffer foodborne illness, 20,000 of them require hospital treatment and more than 500 die. That’s nearly ten people a week. And there’s a financial cost too: the price tag for UK foodborne illness is reckoned to be £1.5 billion annually. That figure can only increase given the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s estimate that there has been a 12% cut in hygiene inspectors in the last year alone.

Food hygiene stories seldom make the news unless they involve a big name or fatalities, for example the recent E. coli outbreak. Food fraud, however, easily lends itself to sensationalist headlines. But food fraud is a bit of a red herring for two reasons, if you’ll pardon the pun. Yes, it’s fraud and it should be investigated and prosecuted – but it’s hardly ever a food safety issue, it’s a food labelling one. And its apparent increase is most likely due to new investigative tools (rapid identification using DNA analysis) and increased reporting.

The good news is we needn’t worry about foodborne illness, deaths or an eminent professor stating we have “a lack of effective regulation of food safety”; who needs food hygiene inspections now that we have The National Food Crime Unit fearlessly rooting out organic produce that isn’t, basmati rice containing inferior rice – and keeping Black Beauty out of the nation’s lasagne.

I’m hugely relieved.

Seán Derrig is scientific director at Chemex International