Food safety: Basic rules

01 March 1998

Recent research carried out throughout the European Union revealed that 11% of the foodstuffs monitored by national authorities did not comply with food legislation. The same research also revealed that 21% of the two million points of sale (shops, hotels, restaurants, wholesalers) did not conform to the appropriate hygiene rules.

Although these figures are disquieting, the main source of food poisoning remains the home. Consumers, while largely aware of the issues involved in food safety, still do not treat hygiene in the kitchen seriously enough. The table lists the most frequent errors and some simple precautions to keep harmful bacteria, the principal source of food-borne illnesses, out of food.

Dr. S. Notermans of the Dutch Nutrition and Food Research Institute believes that food safety, whether at home or elsewhere, is about observing some basic rules. "The science behind the rules," he says, "is based on learning from things that have gone wrong in the past."

Part of the challenge of producing safer food entails understanding the production and distribution of food throughout the total supply chain. Collection of relevant data helps authorities to analyse critical points and inform consumers on food safety in the home. The Netherlands, for example, a leader in this area, has a four-point approach.

The Dutch model

A Reporting System publishes an annual report on suspected food-borne illnesses and the results of laboratory research. Poor hygiene and cooking practices are the most frequent contributors.

Sentinel and Population Studies provide data on the real frequency of food-borne illnesses, in particular Salmonella and Campylobacter, the most common bacteria involved in food-borne illnesses.

Case-Control Studies inform the authorities on the origin of a disease-causing agent. Data on patients infected by Escherichia coli (E.coli) has shown that cattle are the principal source of the organism.

Literature Reports provide information on newly emerging organisms that cause food-borne disease, and inform the scientific community on developments. The published Food safety cont'dresults can influence food safety regulations.

Dr. Notermans concludes, "providing consumers with science-based information is the best way of preventing them from contracting food-borne illness. But then consumers must act on it. Government, all players in the food chain, and especially consumers share the responsibility for a safe food supply."

As part of a programme to better inform the consumer, the European Commission - DG XXIV Consumer Policy and Consumer Health Protection, will shortly launch an information campaign on food safety and consumer health, using elements of existing campaigns in EU member states to address the main hygiene issues.

See also the WHO 1997 report on "Prevention and Control of Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) Infections," of which EUFIC can provide a summary.

Common food safety errors in the home

Some simple precautions

inadequate refrigeration

keep food frozen or chilled until eaten

poor general hygiene

wash hands regularly

contamination by an infected person

family members who are ill must not touch food

inadequate heating

follow instructions on food packages and in recipes for time and temperature

use of contaminated utensils

keep surfaces clean; wash utensils after use

cross contamination between foods

keep foods separate

preparation too long in advance

eat immediately after preparation, or re-heat

(Extracted from the EUFIC fact pack "From Farm to Fork." )