New research published yesterday by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) gives 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.

FSA officials said the findings are important as official data for food poisoning cases significantly underestimate how big the problem is, because only the most serious cases get reported. Most people do not seek treatment from their general practitioner (GP), and not all GPs carry out tests for specific pathogens, so these unreported cases are not captured in routine surveillance data, according to the FSA.

An FSA news release stated, "The data from this study, coupled with data from official statistics, refines our previous estimates of the real burden of foodborne disease and so will help focus efforts to reduce levels of food poisoning in the UK."

The study found that:

  • There are more than 500,000 cases of food poisoning a year from known pathogens. This figure would more than double if it included food poisoning cases from unknown 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.
  • After poultry, produce including vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, caused the second highest number of cases of illness (an estimated 48,000 cases), while beef and lamb were third (an estimated 43,000 cases).

The researchers were able to identify about half a million cases of food poisoning every year attributable to 13 specific pathogens. However, 10 million cases of infectious intestinal disease (IID) a year are not yet attributed to a specific pathogen. If these cases had similar rates attributable to food, this would bring the overall figure to more than one million cases a year, FSA officials said.

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."

The research is an extension of the IID2 study, published in September 2011, which estimated the numbers of cases of IID in the UK. The IID2 extension was commissioned by the FSA to use the data generated from the IID2 study, and other sources, to estimate the burden of foodborne disease in the UK.

The IID2 extension applied mathematical modelling techniques to the results of the main IID2 study, alongside data from outbreaks and a systematic literature review of almost 200 international studies. This allowed researchers to produce estimates of the amount of IID attributable to food and broken down by 13 disease-causing pathogens, including Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, Salmonella, E. coli O157 and viruses like the winter vomiting bug norovirus.

The FSA will 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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