NEWS / Brexit

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 up to 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.

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 up to 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. [see note 3 below]
  • The US reports higher rates of deaths from foodborne illness than in the UK. The annual death rate in the US is 3,000 per annum, versus 500 in the UK. [The US population is about 5 times the size of the UK.]
  • The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report around 380 deaths in the US each year attributed to foodborne salmonella poisoning. The most recent epidemiological lab data from Public Health England, 2006 to 2015 shows no deaths in England and Wales from salmonella. 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.
  • The US reports an estimated 1,591 cases of food poisoning from Listeria Monocytogenes, the bacteria that causes listeriosis food poisoning. In England and Wales there were 135 reported cases in 2017. Listeriosis is usually caught from eating food such as cooked sliced meats, cured meats, smoked fish, cooked shellfish, blue veined and mould-ripened soft cheeses, pâté, and pre-prepared sandwiches and salads.

Using UK Food Standards Agency estimates of the current costs of foodborne disease 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 - across a range of food poisoning pathogens and contaminants. [see note 2]

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, chief executive 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

[NOTE: In our original story, we referenced Campylobacter infection rates, which contained an error, which we have issued a retraction and withdrawn.]

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 up to 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 across all foodborne pathogens and contaminants that cause food poisoning, that would mean a theoretical 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.

3. Explanatory note added after publication of this statement: US figures are based on laboratory-confirmed cases, reported cases and population estimates; UK figures are based mainly on laboratory-confirmed cases. Therefore, direct comparison is complicated, and it cannot be assumed that the numbers of people in the US who experience food poisoning is definitely 10 times higher (an absolute figure), only that it may be up to 10 times higher. Death rates are more directly comparable.

Additional note added after publication of this statement, which was originally issued in February 2018:

  • Reported in summer 2018, an outbreak of Salmonella Enterica food poisoning linked to cucumber in ready-to-eat foods was thought to be responsible for over 150 cases of illness across Europe, the majority of them in the UK.
  • Reported in autumn 2018, an outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium food poisoning linked to lamb and mutton was thought to be responsible for around 300 cases of illness and to have contributed to one death in the UK.

21/02/2018
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Brexit: We stand at a cross-roads. When the UK leaves the European Union, will our leaders uphold good standards for our food, farming, fishing and trade deals? And will they agree a sensible deal with the EU? We need to make sure that they do!

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