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Bannish the bugs;Food for life

How to make the normally staid and unwholesomesubject of food hygiene cool and stimulating enough to interest teenagers - that has to be the ultimate challenge.

At South Staffordshire District Council, environmental health officers believe they might have the answer. They teamed up with drama students from Sandwell College to take a show around local schools during Food Safety Week last week. The Knife and Fork Production Company's show, Mother Knows Best, teaches pupils that they should never refreeze meat once it has been defrosted, that they always wash their hands after going to the toilet. Such messages are put across with the help of lively comedy, dance, rap routines and references to popular television shows.

But the serious message of how to handle food safely is one that preoccupies health officials throughout the country - and they are increasingly keen to spread it in schools.

Ken Walker, South Staffordshire's head of environmental health, said:

"We're convinced that most food poisoning cases arise because of the way food is handled and produced in the home. If we can teach people, get them to appreciate how food should be handled safely, we can prevent a tremendous number of food poisoning cases."

In Harrow, John Dunne, the London borough's group environmental health officer, and his colleagues are working with the education authority to go into schools and work alongside teachers to get the food safety message across.

"I think you have to catch children young and try to instil a modicum of knowledge. We'd want to settle on the crucial issues in food safety, for example why it's important to refrigerate food, why it's important that food products sold hot are cooked properly and achieve certain temperatures. How far you go into the science - in terms of the names of different food poisoning organisms - will very much depend on the age of the class and where they are academically."

In Gosport, Hampshire, health officials proposed organising the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health certificate in food hygiene specifically for teachers. But the scheme was thwarted because schools couldn't spare staff for the five-day course.

The institute is keen to encourage links with schools, but says this is limited by lack of resources. It has been lobbying for changes to the national curriculum to include food hygiene training in its own right. "We want it included properly, not as it is - dispersed in a strange way as part of design technology," said the institute's food safety expert, Ann Goodwin. "You find other little bits in other parts - like science may do bacteriology. So it is very disparate in the national curriculum. You end up with people, especially in design technology, looking at a subject about which they don't feel confident."

A consortium including the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Health and numerous agencies, including the Consumers' Association and the Food and Drink Federation, has put in a bid for European funding to promote food safety in schools. The bid was part of a Europe-wide campaign to promote food safety after a survey highlighted concern about BSE (mad cow disease) and food poisoning outbreaks. If successful, every secondary school in the country would receive a teaching pack on the subject.

"I would like to think if they win the bid that it will be a great resource pack for teachers and it will be easy for them to use," said Ann Goodwin. "The hard work about how to incorporate this into the national curriculum will have been done for them."

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