More than one million people have been infected with norovirus since last summer, which is 63% higher than the same period of 2011, according to Health Protection Agency figures.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) now identifies norovirus as a key pathogen in its Foodborne Disease Strategy for 201015, along with campylobacter and listeria. This is due to the volume of recent cases and because it is highly infectious and easily spread through worker contact and on food surfaces.
Infected food industry workers are putting their employers in danger of poisoning their customers through contaminated products, according to experts in the field.
The problem is likely to be exacerbated as staff are often reluctant to take time off when they fall ill because of fears surrounding their job security, warns equipment supplier Slingsby.
"Since the recession began in 2008, the average number of sick days has fallen every year," says Lee Wright, md at Slingsby.
Last year the UK Office for National Statistics revealed the average number of sick days fell to its lowest level since records began in 1993, with workers now taking an average of just 4.5 days a year. In 1993, the average was 7.2.
Workers are also returning to work while still infectious and practising poor personal hygiene, due to a naivety about the risks, warned Peter Barratt, technical manager at Rentokil Initial Hygiene. He says a third of all food manufacturing workers do not have acceptable personal hygiene and are failing to comply with hygiene regulations.
"Hand hygiene is recognised as the most effective way of stopping illness being transferred from one person to another," says Barratt. "I'm not convinced as a country we are as good [at personal hygiene] as we need to be."
So why in an industry where hygiene is so important are many staff breaking the rules?
One big reason, according to John Holah, business development manager for hygiene at food research organisation Campden BRI, is the temptation to cut corners thanks to time pressures, poor facilities or lack of direction.
"There is often a difference between what people know they should do and what they actually do," says Holah. "It is crucial to understand why they are not doing it."
Holah is calling for independent behavioural studies of the food manufacturing environment to identify why good hygiene including hand washing is not always taking place. "Food manufacturers are fully aware of the importance of good hand hygiene, which is the frustrating and difficult bit to understand."
The trouble is we humans tend to be sloppy and can forget the importance of food hygiene unless constantly reminded of the dangers of bad habits, claims academic and food safety expert professor Hugh Pennington.
Pennington has considerable experience of dealing with some of the most serious food hygiene scandals to hit the UK.
In 1996 Pennington chaired the inquiry into an E.coli O157 outbreak in Wishaw, Scotland, which killed 17 elderly people after they had eaten contaminated meat from a butcher's shop.
Unfortunately, despite the report's devastating findings, the lessons learned failed to be taken on board by food business firms or regulators. Sadly, this led to yet another catastrophic E.coli O157 food safety incident in South Wales in 2005, which resulted in the tragic death of a five-year-old boy, Mason Jones.
Pennington, who led the seminal inquiry post outbreak, told Food Manufacture: "I asked everyone who came in front of me during the 2005 inquiry, if they had read the 1996 Scotland inquiry, which had so many parallels to the present case. It was quite clear that people hadn't remembered it."
Pennington adds: "When there is a serious outbreak, we are good at having an inquiry and jumping up and down. But then we go back to our old ways."
The FSA recognises that getting the culture right is critical and a core responsibility of food businesses.
"We are researching the characteristics of businesses that get it right, so we can help those getting it wrong to get better," says Stephen Humphreys, director of communications, at the FSA.
The first step to communicating the importance of good food hygiene is to ensure all staff receive training. But Paula Morris, UK business manager at training provider Alchemy, says a lack of schemes that engage staff and are easily digestible by those from different backgrounds, is hindering the improvement of hygiene cultures in factories.
Morris notes that many food factories now operate 24 hours a day and employ a diversity of staff many whose first language is not English or don't respond to class-based learning so the industry should adapt its courses accordingly. Night workers and casual employees often miss out as paper-based training is carried out when they are not at work, she claims.
Training, training, training
Morris argues that paper-based training is the wrong way to train staff whose first language is not English. Manufacturers should opt for more interactive courses, which come in different languages, she suggests. This would ensure staff are not just taught to 'tick a box', but are given real knowledge about the risks of poor hygiene.
Despite failings in such areas, many food manufacturers have gone to great lengths to properly train their staff, providing advisory signs and test papers in appropriate languages for non UK nationals even bringing in translators to help with the training, according to Eric Smith, head of food safety and product recall at crisis management company RED24.
Smith suggests that staff sometimes fail to understand food hygiene because the training they receive is not practical enough. While it may inform workers about effective hand washing, it might fail to make clear how bacteria grows and explain the dangers of cross-contamination.
Baratt suggests food hygiene training needs to be tailored to particular staff needs. "We need to bring training alive and break away from educating people in the classroom," he says. "Training should be given in real time on the factory floor, so people can understand how important maintaining their hygiene is."
Training is provided in many ways, but increasingly more and more online courses are emerging. However, The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), which represents local authority environmental health officers, warns that a growing number of online food safety trainers are providing incorrect guidance, which is endangering public health.
Marianne Phillips, head of training programme accreditation at the CIEH, claims there are problems with nine in 10 online courses. This, she warns, is leading to many workers believing they understand hygiene law, when they don't.
"A lot of these courses are of a poor standard, because there is no regulation required to set up training courses," says Phillips. "The biggest concern is public safety: people are not being trained to an appropriate level, but think they are and will continue to break hygiene regulations."
Morris believes that too many manufacturers opt for cheap online courses to save money. She argues that some are more interested in providing a due diligence defence rather than properly informing their staff. "There needs to be a change to a culture where manufacturers want staff to be equipped with a knowledge and understanding of food safety," she says.
Smith thinks the secret of improving hygiene culture is to provide staff with regular updates and revised training, so that the importance of hygiene is always fresh in workers' minds.
In contrast, Holah disputes that manufacturers lack knowledge about the importance of hygiene or that training programmes fail to provide hygiene information properly. He believes the real problem lies with some firms choosing not to comply with the rules.
In the current tough economic climate, cost cutting is a big concern particularly if this compromises food safety, claims Smith.
"When manufacturers look to see where they can save money, training is always the first thing to go," he warns. But training is not the only issue that impacts on manufacturers' wallets.
Some firms are putting themselves at risk by implementing false economies involving their cleaning, hygiene and personal protection equipment use, claims one supplier. "30-40% of food manufacturers are spending more money than they should on cleaning for two reasons," says Alistair Needler, md of supplier of janitorial equipment to the food manufacturing sector Needlers. "They are buying cheaper, low-quality products that cost more in the long run as they need to be replaced more quickly. A lack of internal control is leading to workers using too much washing solution and disposable items."
Lives at risk
Holah disputes this suggestion, however, and doubts that manufacturers would get away with such activities. "Everybody is audited to some extent and regardless of the auditing body it will look to hygiene as a top priority," he claims.
So, despite some differences in explaining the reasons why, it appears food hygiene culture within the UK food manufacturing sector is not always as good as it might be.
Too many workers believe they have an appropriate understanding about food hygiene standards, and yet fail to put this into practice. The result is that their companies and, more importantly, end consumers are sometimes being put at risk.
A better trained workforce could be one way of improving the situation, but unless a hygiene culture permeates from the board room to the shop floor, lives will continue to be put at risk.
"It is imperative that manufacturers understand the importance of proper training," says Phillips. "Every day we run the risk of a foodborne outbreak."
Phillips fears that it will probably take another major food poisoning outbreak like the ones seen in 1996 and 2005 before more of the industry takes notice. What a sad indictment.