Food Illnesses

The Facts!


Food poisoning and food borne illnesses account for millions of deaths world-wide each year.

Even in the developed world millions suffer each year from very serious illnesses brought about from eating contaminated food.  In the USA alone it is estimated that up to 33 million people get food borne illnesses resulting in 9,000* deaths each year.

*Council for Agricultural Science & Technology Report 1994

The symptoms of food poisoning and food illnesses are very unpleasant, however, in most cases, a full recovery can be expected, but serious illness resulting in death, particularly in the very young and very old can often result. 

Salmonella and Campylobacter are both bacteria found in a wide range of animals and foods of animal origin, especially poultry and meats.

In New Zealand the number of cases of both these illnesses are on the rise.

The NZ Food Safety Authority says

"The incidence of food borne illness in New Zealand has reached alarming levels. An estimated 200,000 or more cases of food borne illness occur each year. Rates of Campylobacter and Salmonella infection reached record highs in 1998. The number of cases of Campylobacter infection notified to public health authorities was 11,580 in 1998. The New Zealand rate is three times that of Australia and twice that of the United Kingdom"

*Click on thumbnail to see histogram of the increase in number of cases of food illnesses caused by Campylobacter in New Zealand from 1980-1998

In 2006, there were 15,873 individuals reported with Campylobacter infection, a rate of 383.5 per 100,000 population, this was a significant increase from the rate of reported disease in 2005, (a rate of 337.6 per 100,000 in 2005). 

The age groups most commonly infected were:

If you have concerns regarding any food safety issue in New Zealand you can report it to the NZ Food Safety Authority

For more information look at this pamphlet on common food bugs and how to keep yourself safe - Meet the Bugs

How the SafeFoodHandler Programme was Developed

Bob Askew made his first return to New Zealand after a punishing but rewarding 6-month mission working in the large Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire. In 1995 he took on a short term contract for food hygiene inspection services with Nelson City in New Zealand and in the course of this contract became aware that the great proportion of food workers were not very motivated to attend the variety of the excellent food safety courses that were available at the time.

On enquiry he found that this was not a situation unique to Nelson. Some other Councils being aware of this apathy had legislated to make sure people attended courses. Nelson however wanted something that would be voluntary.

So the food and hospitality industry workers were asked why they wouldn’t attend the courses that were available and this is how they responded:

“Too expensive”

“Can’t get the time off work”

“I’m only doing the job part time for a few months so why bother?

“Don’t like exams”

“Don’t think I could pass”

“Course is too long / too complicated”

“My friend did the course and she doesn’t do anything better than me”

It’s a fact that a number of workers in the food industry are young, many are school leavers, some have few academic skills and/or qualifications, some have low self-esteem and many are transitory workers.   They are also usually not the highest paid workers and therefore do not have much disposable income.  This financial constraint also applies to many food business managers.

Bob decided that for a food safety programme to be successful it had to address all of the above issues.  Not only that it had to have some component that would generate a sense of ‘ownership’ so that food workers would not only know what to do, they would actually do it!

The ‘’ programme includes a set of easy learn notes that give the reader the important basics of food safety but without the complicated microbiology bits. 

The programme is written at a level that everyone can understand and has been reviewed by a teacher who takes English for new immigrants into New Zealand.  The notes include some humour ad has lots of helpful advice and explanations to help the student.  The notes have just 38 easy-read pages and will take an average reader just a few hours to complete.

 The learning is done in the student’s own time without the need for tutors or practical work.  To make sure the reader has understood the information in the notes there is a check sheet with 50 questions, which have a true/false answer. The check sheet is not a memory test or intelligence test, but it does provide an excellent way for students to think and learn and remember.   The check sheets are done at the student’s leisure at home or wherever!  It is not possible to ‘cheat’; working through the check sheet with others is actually encouraged.  The student must get 45 out of the 50 questions correct to proceed to the next stage.

The programme could have finished at that point with a certificate of achievement like other food safety courses, but the goal was to get ‘ownership’ of the newly learned skills so that the student would put them into practice.

This was achieved through a simple, but extremely powerful mechanism.  The student’s, once they have passed the check sheet stage are required to sign an agreement which commits them to “always observe the best food safety practices, so customers can be confident of receiving safe quality food”.  These agreements are frequently put in pride of place on the wall for customers to see and acknowledges and endorses the food worker's commitment to safe food handling. 

 This simple process of the signed agreement has proven to be highly successful.  

Now with some modification, it has been put on the web as a global food safety initiative.  A number of countries and organizations have already invested in the programme.

We encourage students to undertake more advanced food safety courses and, with this newfound confidence after success with this programme, many have done just that. 

The ‘” programme is also open to those who already have achieved academic skills in food safety and is a useful ‘refresher course’.


The programme is not limited to just food handlers.  A major New Zealand bakery company even put their drivers through the programme and the results were that the retailers got the message about bad food storage from the drivers who were ‘fired up’ to make sure their safe quality food was not abused once it left their care!

This programme does work.  It works exceedingly well.

The programme is achievable, affordable and available anywhere in the world on-line. 

About Bob Askew   

I have been employed as an Environmental Health Officer for over 40 years and have specialised in food safety issues.  

My expertise has ranged from being a specialist Food Safety Officer for a Major European City (Leeds UK) to having worked in Central Africa (Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda) for the International Red Cross, Oxfam and the UN as Water and Sanitation Engineer for refugees during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. 

I am currently Senior Environmental Health Officer with Nelson City Council, New Zealand.

My local community works has included:

  1. Chairperson of Environmental and Occupational Health Service Development Group

  2. Elected member to Nelson Marlborough Area Health Board

  3. Chairperson of Central Region Medical Ethics Committee

  4. Nelson Tasman Region Disaster Recovery Manager

  5. New Zealand Red Cross Regional Board Member

The 'Safe Food Handler' programme which I have developed in New Zealand has won major awards for innovation and customer service and is now being used with success by thousands of people in New Zealand and world-wide.