Measuring foodborne illness levels

Last updated:
19 July 2013
The Food Standards Agency monitor trends in foodborne disease caused by key pathogenic (disease-causing) bugs in the UK. These trends are monitored through laboratory-confirmed cases of illness.

How foodborne illness levels are measured

Cases are confirmed when a stool sample is provided by someone suffering from food poisoning symptoms and is sent to a laboratory by a GP or other health professional. However, even if a foodborne germ is found we cannot always be sure it has come from food that has been eaten, it could be from contact with some else suffering from foodborne disease. Also, not all people suspected of having food poisoning provide a stool sample for testing. This means we can't be sure exactly how many cases of food poisoning there are, but there are ways in which we can make reasonable estimates of trends and tell whether the number of cases is going up or down. Although these confirmed cases only represent a fraction of the total, this system does provide a consistent indication of trends in some of the key foodborne pathogens the Agency monitors.

Since 2000 the Agency has monitored the changes in foodborne disease using confirmed laboratory notifications of salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli O157 and Listeria monocytogenes.

Trends in foodborne disease

Between 2000 and 2005 there was a considerable reduction (19.2%) in the levels of foodborne disease; however, since then cases of foodborne illness have remained relatively stable, though increasing in recent years since 2005. This increase is largely due to a substantial increase in the number of cases of campylobacter infection, which has occurred in all UK countries. It is currently unclear whether this increase is due to a true increase in incidence, an increase in reporting, or a combination of the two. We are working closely with other relevant parties (e.g. Health Protection Agency, Health Protection Scotland, National Public Health Service for Wales and Public Health Agency for Northern Ireland) to better understand this increase.

The Agency is continuing to monitor confirmed cases of salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli O157 and L. monocytogenes as part of the 2010–15 foodborne disease strategy. In addition, we will monitor confirmed cases of norovirus, which is estimated to cause approximately 200,000 cases of foodborne disease each year in England and Wales alone.

Until 2009, the Agency reported cases of Clostridium perfringens, but it is difficult to estimate disease burden from reported cases as the disease is usually mild and the number of cases recorded each year is low, therefore the Agency will no longer be reporting cases of C. perfringens.

Laboratory confirmed cases of Infectious Intestinal Disease 2000 - 2012
Year Campylobacter Salmonella E. coli O157 Listeria monocytogenes Norovirus
2000 65,165 16,606 1,147 116
2001 62,912 18,410 1,049 162
2002 53,535 15,828 851 160
2003 51,336 16,442 876 239
2004 49,508 14,719 927 232
2005 52,517 12,939 1,171 220 4,653
2006 52,570 13,781 1,291 210 7,320
2007 58,049 13,347 1,124 255 8,495
2008 55,732 11,609 1,250 205 9,438
2009 65,114 10,091 1,319 234 10,378
2010 70,323 10,265 1,072 176 15,529
2011 72,249 9,456 1,453 164 10,661
2012 72,571 9,184 1,249 184 14,513

Please note, that this table has been updated:

  • The title has been changed to reflect that these are laboratory confirmed cases of infectious intestinal disease and not foodborne illness as previously labelled in the old stats provided.
  • The new figures supplied are 'all cases', including UK acquired and those that are acquired abroad. We were previously showing number of cases that are UK acquired only and therefore numbers were lower.
  • Figures have been provided by Public Health England, Health Protection Scotland and Public Health Agency for Northern Ireland.
  • The figures presented are from a dynamic database, and are liable to change.
  • Norovirus figures include both community and hospital-acquired infections, as the PHE laboratory reporting system cannot differentiate between them.

More information on trends in foodborne disease can be found via the links in the ‘See also’ section below.

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