Fears new trade deals with US will increase UK food poisoning

Fresh analysis by Sustain published today flags food safety fears for future UK trade deals.Figures suggest that the percentage of people who fall ill with food poisoning annually is ten times higher in the US than the UK. Sustain fears treating increased food poisoning could increase deaths from food poisoning and cost the NHS and UK economy at least £1bn extra per year.






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Today Sustain publishes fresh analysis that flags food safety fears for future UK trade deals. Figures suggest that the percentage of people who fall ill with food poisoning annually is ten times higher in the US than the UK. We fear that treating increased food poisoning could increase deaths from food poisoning and cost the NHS and UK economy at least £1bn extra per year.

We examined the food safety records of the United States, as the Government has already set up working groups with them to discuss a possible future deal.

We found:

  • The US reports higher rates of illness from foodborne illness than in the UK. Annually, 14.7% (48m) of the US population suffer from an illness, versus 1.5% (1m) in the UK. This is nearly ten times the percentage of population.
  • The US reports higher rates of deaths from foodborne illness than in the UK. The annual death rate in the US is 3000 per annum, versus 500 in the UK. [The US population is about 5 times the size of the UK.]
  • The US Centre of Disease Control and Prevention reports around 380 deaths in the US each year attributed to foodborne salmonella poisoning. The most recent epidemiological lab data from Public Health England shows no deaths in England and Wales from salmonella between 2005 and 2015. Salmonella food poisoning is most commonly caused by consumption of contaminated food of animal origin, such as beef, chicken, milk, fish or eggs.
  • The Food Standards Agency recently updated its guidance to say that eating soft-boiled British Lion Mark eggs is now safe, thanks to a dramatic reduction in the presence of salmonella. By contrast, the US Food and Drug Administration still advises US consumers to hard boil their eggs due to salmonella fears. They report 79,000 cases of illness and 30 deaths a year from salmonella infected eggs.
  • Campylobacter – another food poisoning pathogen found in animal products, especially chicken – causes 1.3m illnesses every year in the US, and their frequency of outbreak is on the rise. The most recent US laboratory-confirmed infection data shows an infection rate from campylobacter of 6,289 per 100k of population. By contrast, Public Health England lab data for England and Wales from 2015 showed a campylobacter infection rate of 96.22 per 100k population. In addition, the Food Standards Agency has reported a 17% decline in laboratory reports of campylobacter in the UK in 2016, saving the economy an estimated £13m each year from reduced with NHS costs and fewer days off work.
  • The US reports an average 1591 cases of listeriosis a year. This compares to an average of 177 a year in England and Wales. Listeriosis is usually caught from eating food such as unpasteurised milk, soft cheeses and chilled ready to eat foods like pâté.

Using Food Standards Agency estimates of the current costs of campylobacter infections, Sustain made a conservative estimate of £1bn additional costs to the UK economy – to the NHS and from loss of earnings – if similar patterns of food poisoning occurred in the UK as currently occur in the US.

The total could be very substantially higher – possibly several billion more – if other costs were included, such as from pain and suffering, higher death rates, and additional hygiene inspection costs required for checking new higher volumes of imported food. The number of local authority food enforcement officers and trading standards inspectors has declined by 22% and 57% respectively in recent years, so new staff and facilities would be needed to check increased imports. Estimates also do not take into account any additional costs to the food industry from increased food poisoning, such as recalls, loss of reputation and compensation claims.

Kath Dalmeny, CEO of Sustain, said: “Our analysis shows that if we accept imported meat without robust standards, we may also import increased food poisoning and possibly even deaths. The US is demanding we drop our food standards for trade, but our research shows cheap US meat will come at a cost to our health and economy.

“New UK trade deals must support hygienic farming methods and good animal welfare. It is absolutely unacceptable that trade decisions will be made behind closed doors by UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox and trade negotiators – without consulting the public, food safety scientists and Parliament. We need to know for sure that Dr Fox’s team are not trading away our safety. There needs to be proper public and scientific scrutiny of all negotiations that affect what we eat.”

Katherine Button, who coordinates the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, added:

“It seems likely that cheaper and lower-standard imported meat would end up in mass catering such as for hospital patients. When budgets are squeezed, especially in the NHS, we often see food quality suffer. Yet vulnerable hospital patients are the very people who should be served delicious and nutritious food that is absolutely safe to eat; not exposed to meat, dairy products and eggs carrying a higher risk of food poisoning. Maintaining and improving food standards must be an absolute priority for trade negotiators. And they need to know we’re watching.”

Sustain is encouraging everyone to write to their MP and ask for accountability, transparency and democracy in trade deals. To find out how you can join in, click here.

Notes to Editors

1. US census data shows their population as 327m as per end of 2017. UK national statistics data shows the UK as 65.6m people.

2. The £1bn figure is calculated based on 10x foodborne illness rate in the US versus the UK as a percentage of the population. The FSA calculated a saving to the economy of £13m thanks to a 100,000 reduction in human cases of campylobacter. If the UK infection rate increased x10, that would mean an extra 9m people would suffer illness. We calculate this as a possible additional cost to the economy of days off and NHS treatment costs of £1.17bn.


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Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming

Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.