SHOCKING national statistics recently revealed the numbers of people who spread potentially-harmful bacteria by washing raw chicken, with environmental health officers at Chichester urging people to take more care.
Between them, Ian Brightmore and Adrian Cook have 50 years’ experience working in the environmental health team at Chichester.
Over the years they have witnessed some pretty shocking sights, but say campaigns such as the raw chicken one remain as important as day-to-day inspections of food premises.
“A lot of it is public perception that it occurs in restaurants, but it also occurs in the home,” said Ian, a health protection manager at Chichester District Council.
Data collected by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed there are more than 280,000 cases of campylobacter poisoning in the UK every year, with up to four out of five cases coming from contaminated poultry.
When people wash raw chicken, it spreads the bacteria across surfaces, hands and other kitchen equipment.
“Through the research the FSA has carried out, more than half of all people have admitted to washing their chicken at some point.
“They don’t know why they do it. It’s because their mum did it.
“They really have no idea,” added Ian.
Campylobacter is the biggest culprit for food poisoning in the UK – most commonly spread by chicken that is not cooked or handled properly.
Data collected between May, 2007 and September, 2008, showed 65 per cent of chicken sold in the UK was contaminated with the bacteria.
The FSA has said the bacteria is estimated to cause more than 100 deaths a year and costs the UK economy about £900m.
To avoid it, people have been advised not to wash raw chicken.
The FSA said: “You don’t need to wash raw chicken before cooking it.
“Washing chicken can spread germs around the kitchen by splashing them on to other surfaces and utensils.”
The chicken should also be stored at 5°C or below and on the lowest shelf of the fridge so that juices do not drip on to other foods and contaminate them.
Now all sites that are visited by the environmental health team get a rating between zero and five for their food hygiene.
Five is the best score to achieve and people can often see a sign outside restaurants announcing their successful food hygiene report.
The results are all published online and available to view at http://ratings.food.gov.uk
“It’s a good driver for improving standards,” said Ian.
“The ones who are zero or one and to a lesser extent two – they tend to be people who don’t care very much anyway.
“The people who are three or five aspire more to be a five and they pull themselves up.”
He added: “We get people who want to be good and are good.
“On the other side of the scale, there are people who will sink to the lowest level of the scale they can get away with – that’s why we’re about.
“It’s to pull those people up to a level that’s acceptable.
“With the best ones, it’s to encourage them to go further and bring them new ideas and help them keep ahead of the game.”
With 1,500 places to inspect, it is a major part of the job, but Ian said currently there were only two or three places in the whole district that were at the very lowest score.
Working with businesses
THE REPUTATION of health inspectors looking out for any piece of dirt to penalise is an image the team is keen to dispel.
“We don’t want to be known as the food police, which is how we’re sometimes portrayed on telly,” said Ian. “We like to play a much more educational role than that.”
He added: “At the end of the day, our job is to support the council’s objectives. The main one of which is support for businesses. We do try to support businesses rather than police them.”
There is often an annual campaign, such as the raw chicken one this year, targeted at educating people on environmental health aspects in the Chichester district. The team also runs courses to train people about food hygiene standards.
Where once an environmental health officer’s role would have involved looking at how clean a premises was, it now extends to all sorts of other aspects, such as looking at how food is stored and prepared before being served to the public.
There are around 1,500 premises which the team keeps an eye on throughout the district, with inspections ranging in frequency depending on how highly the cafe, shop, restaurant, bar, factory or other facility scored last time.
Everyone gets inspected, whether they are running a takeaway at the Festival of Speed or selling shortbread from a clothes shop.