Phew, what a sickwave


By Michael Day BRITAIN should prepare for a huge outbreak of food poisoning, with an extra 30 000 cases likely over the next few weeks. The blame should not be heaped on poor hygiene in the kitchen, but on the squalid conditions on intensive farms, says Tim O’Brien, head of research for Compassion in World Farming. In a report published last week, O’Brien warns that the unusually hot weather this month and the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in many factory farms could prove a deadly combination. “It’s no good blaming housewives and the way they prepare food in the kitchen,” he says. The time-lag between the start of hot weather and outbreaks of poisoning indicates that the problem began in the early stages of food production—on the farm. “For every 1 °C rise in average daily temperatures we see a 7 per cent increase in the number of cases of food poisoning,” says O’Brien. “When the temperature rises bacteria multiply everywhere—on and in poultry, in their feed and water and in the excrement they’re forced to live in.” Factory farms encourage the proliferation of bacteria, says O’Brien. “The current conditions are effectively bacterial incubators, and in the hot weather they get even worse.” Figures from the Meteorological Office for the first half of August suggest that the temperature in England and Wales was more than 3 °C higher than the average for this period. In the Southeast, the figure was nearer 5 °C above average. The Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) is still compiling last year’s figures but it estimates that there were around 83 000 reported cases of food poisoning in 1996. The toll is higher in the summer months, with about 10 per cent of the cases in August. According to Hugh Pennington, a bacteriologist at the University of Aberdeen, only about 1 in 30 cases is reported, which puts the real total nearer 2.5 million cases last year. As a result of the hot weather in the first two weeks of August, England and Wales are likely to see a 21 per cent increase— 7 per cent for each 1 °C rise—or an extra 30 000 cases, says O’Brien. If the heat wave continues the number will be higher still. The commonest food poisoning organisms, Salmonella and Campylobacter, which account for more than 80 per cent of cases, thrive in warmer weather. Both organisms are common in and on poultry, and Campylobacter is common in cattle and pigs. Around one in a thousand cases of Salmonella poisoning is fatal. Campylobacter can sometimes lead to arthritis and in rare cases paralysis. Pennington points out that the effect of hot weather this spring may have already produced an increase in cases of food poisoning. Preliminary figures from the PHLS seem to show an upsurge of cases in June. O’Brien is concerned that the wrong people are being blamed. “The trouble is no one has made the link between fundamental farming practice and food poisoning on the table,” he says. Patrick Wall, head of surveillance for gastrointestinal diseases at the PHLS, agrees: “There is more infection in animals in extremes of temperature. In Britain we don’t make enough allowance for the problems caused by the heat.” The problem is preventable, says Wall. “With better husbandry and food preparation we could avoid this illness. It doesn’t get as much publicity as heart attacks and no one is pretending people are keeling over in the streets. But the costs to the health service are huge. For every 50 people sick with salmonella,
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