Food poisoning cases at Birmingham restaurants and take aways have rocketed during the recession with cases of food fraud and cut backs in cleaning also on the increase.

Environmental health officers at Birmingham City Council said the number of cases of suspected food poisoning had risen by more than 25 per cent in the last year and found businesses have been left so strapped for cash they have resorted to buying products such as meat and alcohol from illegal traders.

He said 1,610 cases of suspected food poisoning were reported to them by Birmingham doctors between April 2009 and April 2010 – the highest number of cases in six years.

There was a rise of 423 more cases than the team had to probe during the same period in 2008 and 2009, when 1,187 cases were investigated.

Nick Lowe, the council’s food safety team manager, blamed the economic downturn on the number of suspected food poisoning cases in Birmingham.

“There definitely seems to be a link between the recession and a deterioration in hygiene standards and an increase in suspected food poisoning cases in the last year,” he said.

“If businesses are short of money they will cut back in areas such as cleaning and we have seen an increase in the last year in food fraud.”

He said the council has been so concerned about a rise in food fraud that it has sent a crack team of officers to restaurants and take-aways across the city to investigate the issue.

“We’ve made some grim findings,” he added. “In one place we found boxes of chicken and when we asked the owner where they got it from they said they didn’t know.

“When we got to the bottom of it, we found they were being phoned by an illegal trader and paying cash for deliveries but they had no idea where the meat came from or if it met the necessary standards.

“We also found firms which were trying to pass off meat as coming from reputable traders but when we checked the paperwork it was clearly from unsavoury sources.

“The problem is they have no clue as to where the products have come from or whether they meet the required food safety regulations, which leaves people at risk of food poisoning.”

The figures come as a Birmingham Post investigation can also reveal the shocking levels of poor hygiene in the kitchens of some of the city’s top restaurants.

Inspection reports by environmental health officers were obtained following a Freedom of Information request.

They include an inspection report for Around the World in 80 Dishes in Brindleyplace, which was forced to clean up its act after inspectors discovered mouse droppings and dirty conditions, which were so poor it received the lowest rating in the council’s 0 – 5H rating system.

Environmental health officers said since the inspection they have revisited the restaurant four times and hygiene standards have vastly improved.

Other hygiene inspection reports obtained by the Post have found more top city eateries to have scored badly in inspections, including The Mailbox’s Oriental Bar Restaurant, Golden Pond in the Arcadian and Athens in Paradise Circus – all only being awarded with one H in inspections carried out in the last year.

And it’s not just restaurants, bars and takeaways with poor hygiene standards.

Children’s nurseries and residential care homes also left inspectors appalled by filthy conditions.

Between April 2009 and April 2010, the environmental health team ordered 41 premises to close due to dire cleanliness standards and it prosecuted 22 premises in court after they flouted regulations, including Ghulam Naz, 50, the owner of Save On Mini Market in Green Lane, Small Heath, who was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £900 prosecution costs after admitting his business was so infested with mice that faeces and urine could be clearly seen amongst the sweets in a pick and mix stand.

Arshad Ghani, 41, owner of Hajee’s chip shop in Stratford Road, Hall Green, was fined £6,000 and ordered to pay £1,105 prosecution costs after admitting selling food in a takeaway riddled with dirt, mouse droppings and dead cockroaches.

Bashir Ahmed, the owner of Mushtaq’s Ltd on Stratford Road, Sparkhill, was banned from running a food business, fined £4,500 and ordered to pay £1,624 costs after mouse droppings were discovered on at the premises. It was the third time in four years that Mushtaq’s had been prosecuted for food hygiene offences.

Now environmental health chiefs are urging consumers to “think before they eat” and visit website www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk which reveals the hygiene ratings of more than 7,000 establishments in Birmingham.

Andy Marshall, food safety team leader at the council, said: “People often judge a place to eat by the cleanliness of the area where food is served and the value for money the menu provides.

“But by looking at the H rating we have given each place it gives a clearer idea what’s going on behind the kitchen doors.

“I would say though that they should be aware that if a restaurant’s rating is really bad it is likely to have improved since we awarded that rating as that’s what we do - we go in, find the problems and keep going back until we’re satisfied the regulations and standards are being met.

“However, we do not change the rating until the next full inspection, usually around a year later.”

He said his team works tirelessly to improved cleanliness in kitchens across the city, and as a result the number of premises to have received zero to one Hs has dropped from 672 in 2007 to 473 last year

“We are definitely raising the standards,” he said. “That’s what’s good about the H rating system being published online, it shocks and shames premises into raising their standards.”

FACTFILE
* Since 2006 all inspections carried out by Birmingham City Council’s environmental health officers in restaurants and premises that serve food have been translated into H scores – Similar to a star rating system

* Zero Hs means poor and five Hs means excellent hygiene standards

* The score takes into account general cleaning standards, control of pests, prevention of food poisoning, temperature control, washing facilities, the state of repair of the premises, how well the business is being managed and the level of food safety management systems

* More than 7,000 food outlets in Birmingham have their ratings on website www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk  the score is only updated when the next full inspection is carried out.

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