EVERYONE has heard stories about cockroaches turning up in takeaway pizzas or mouse droppings in meals. It's the job of environmental health officers to ensure food is sold without added bugs and beasties. To mark Food Safety Week, which started today, reporter VALERIE COWAN spoke to Blackburn with Darwen Council's food safety unit about the problems customers face. And she found out what it is like for one council worker living a life of grime. . .

Simon's take-out stake-out

WHEN Simon Dalton fancies a takeaway meal, he has to send someone else for it.

But he has a better idea than most people on where to go to eat.

As a technical officer in the food control unit of Blackburn with Darwen Council's environmental health department, Simon is on the frontline of the fight against food poisoning from commercial premises.

He inspects everything from Chinese takeaways and burger bars to dairies and ice cream vans to ensure they are meeting the required hygiene standards and not putting customers at risk.

He's been doing the job 10 years and is well known among local food traders - which is why he never goes for a takeaway himself. It's just too embarrassing. Simon and his colleagues carry out routine checks on all food premises - from once every six months for places with a poor hygiene record to once every five years for somewhere low-risk, like a newsagents selling chocolate.

Proprietors are not given warning of a visit and not all are welcoming. Night visits are carried out on takeaways which open for the post-pub crowd, and proprietors are often not pleased to have to contend with an inspection as well as the drunks.

Simon said: "People are very nervous. They think we are going to be really horrible and that is certainly not the case.

"We are here to help and assist and it is only when people don't want to help themselves that we have got to use the force of the law.

"With night visits, we want to see them working and see the conditions when they are under pressure.

"People think there must be cockroaches or rats if the environmental health are in but they should be aware that we are there on a routine visit."

When Simon goes on an inspection, first impressions definitely count.

He said: "You can walk in somewhere and think, this is absolutely horrendous, or you can see that it is spotless. You get a good idea of what it is like right away."

He will then take a closer look at the structure of the building - are the floors easy to clean, for example - and the way food is stored. He will check the temperature of fridges and for possible sources of cross-contamination - where raw and cooked food might come into contact.

He also makes sure the premises have systems in place to prevent any problems, such as using colour-coded chopping boards and knives for different foodstuffs, sanitising work surfaces as well as washing them with soap and water, and all staff wash their hands regularly.

If he spots something which looks like it might be contaminated, he will take samples and the owner of the premises could face prosecution.

Most premises do meet the required standards - and some go much further.

The takeaway that is now Lee's Cantonese, in Preston Old Road, Feniscowles, Blackburn, is one such case.

Before the present owners, Chung Yuen Lee and his wife Lan Hoi Lee, took over four years ago, the takeaway had only ever met minimum standards.

But Simon said the couple had made improvements which took them well beyond that minimum, without being asked.

"During an inspection we will ask if they have any plans to improve the premises and if they ask what is wrong with it you know you are going to have difficulty. "Someone like Mr Lee is telling me how he is going to improve it. We are there to advise but owners have to take some responsibility."

Mr Lee and his staff spend at least an hour and a half cleaning the takeaway every day, as well as cleaning up after themselves as they go along. Once a week equipment is moved out of the way to allow for a thorough scrubbing.

Mr Lee said it was not difficult to meet the regulations.

He buys fresh food regularly and tries not to store it for too long. He ensures rice is always cooked for long enough at the correct temperature

"If you have run a place for a few months and you know your business it is easy," he said.

"You know roughly how much food you are going to need so nothing is left lying around."

Facts and figures to belly-ache over

MOST people will have experienced it at some time. Stomach cramps, diarrhoea, fever, vomiting...the classic signs of food poisoning.

It might pass in a few hours - or it could be much more serious, depending on the type of bug picked up and the general health of the person affected.

Statistics suggest food poisoning is on the rise nationally, and major food scares - such as BSE and e.coli - are happening more and more often.

But Denise Johnson, Blackburn with Darwen Council's environmental health manager, believes people are less likely than ever before to pick up food poisoning after a meal out in the borough. She said: "The vast majority of the premises are satisfactory and above and obviously a lot of our office time is spent on the other ones. The council has put a lot of resources in to it and we are getting out and doing more inspections of premises."

But the borough still had around 300 cases of food poisoning last year - not all caused by commercial premises - and many go unreported.

A Department of Health survey of infectious intestinal diseases, including food poisoning, found that 9.4million people were affected each year but only a sixth went to their doctor and hardly any cases were reported to the Public Health Laboratory Service.

Some of the most common bugs, like campylobacter, don't cause many major problems in those affected.

But if someone whose immune system is already weakened, for example if they are already ill, or very young or very old, it can be more serious.

And in recent years cases of E.coli and salmonella have killed.

The council's food safety unit will investigate all complaints about food safety, as well as making regular checks on premises selling food.

But she said a visit from the environmental health no longer terrified the owners of food businesses.

That's not to say the department doesn't have teeth - and it isn't afraid to use them when necessary.

People convicted in the courts of food safety offences can be fined up to £20,000 and can even be sent to prison for up to two years.

The environmental health department also has the right to close a business on the spot if there is an imminent risk to health. That is followed up by a court appearance within days when the firm can be ordered to keep its doors closed until the problems are sorted out. They can also seize any food which they consider to be unfit for human consumption.

More information on food safety issues is available from the food safety team on 01254 585475.

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