Food poisoning makes at least 500,000 sick

Over a half a million people fall ill from food poisoning every year in the UK according to the most accurate ever survey.

The research by the University of Liverpool, published last week by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), shows that there are more than 500,000 cases a year from known pathogens.

Campylobacter was the most common foodborne pathogen, with about 280,000 cases every year. The next most common pathogen was Clostridium perfringens with 80,000 cases, and norovirus was third with an estimated 74,000 cases.

Salmonella is the pathogen that causes the most hospital admissions – about 2,500 each year.

Poultry meat was the food linked to the most cases of food poisoning, with an estimated 244,000 cases every year. Produce including vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, caused an estimated 48,000 cases, while beef and lamb caused an estimated 43,000 cases.
The FSA said the research gave the most detailed picture yet of how many people suffer from food poisoning in the UK every year and how much food poisoning can be attributed to different foods.

It said the findings were as important as official data for food poisoning cases significantly underestimates how big the problem is, as only the most serious cases get reported.

Most people do not seek treatment from their GP, and not all GPs carry out tests for specific pathogens, so these unreported cases are not captured in routine surveillance data.

The researchers examined cases of food poisoning attributable to 13 specific pathogens but 10 million cases of infectious intestinal disease a year are not yet attributed to a specific pathogen. If these cases had similar rates attributable to food then this would bring the overall figure to in excess of a million cases a year.

Professor Sarah O'Brien, the study's lead researcher from the University of Liverpool, said: 'These findings will help the FSA to target its resources more effectively in tackling food poisoning. They confirm that the FSA is right to put campylobacter at the top of its priority list. It is the biggest food safety problem we have and more needs to be done to tackle it.'

Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, said: 'This study is a very important part of the research we fund to increase our knowledge of food safety and the risks that all of us are exposed to. Reduction of campylobacter is our top food safety priority, and that is borne out by this research. We recently revised our campylobacter strategy and we, in collaboration with industry, must now push on to find the solutions that will stop so many people getting ill.'

Jenny Morris, head of the Institute of Food Safety, Integrity & Protection (IFSIP) and CIEH principal policy officer, said the study was important.

‘The study is significant because it is based on the IID2 study, which looked at gastro-intestinal illness in the community. As such it gives a real picture of foodborne illness rather than an artificial number arising from laboratory notifications, which we all know are just the tip of the iceberg,’ she said.

She said more needed to be found out about how and why food poisoning occurs.

‘This needs research in the first place followed by operational action. The FSA spends a lot on research so that is good. It is less clear how findings are translated into action and how this impacts on incidence,’ she said.

The research, which builds on earlier studies, applied mathematical modelling techniques alongside data from outbreaks and a systematic literature review of almost 200 international studies.

The FSA added it would be carrying out further work to look at estimates for other/unknown agents, hospital occupancy, deaths and the economic cost of UK foodborne disease.


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