Shop locally to be sure your food is safe

As scientists continue to search for the source of the toxic E coli outbreak that has now affected people in 12 European countries, Kathryn Cross looks at the reaction to the latest food scare on the ground in Norfolk

'If you want to ensure your food is safe to eat, buy British and buy local.'

That was the message from the region's growers and suppliers last night as German officials were still trying to find the cause of the E coli outbreak which has so far caused 23 deaths in Europe.

After ruling out Spanish cucumbers and then saying that 'all indications' pointed to bean sprouts as the source of the bacterium, scientists were last night still unable to confirm they were the cause as initial tests came back negative.

The outbreak is the latest in a line of food scares to have worried consumers over the last decade. So far, however, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the outbreak without knowing what the cause was, although all the cases so far have been linked with northern Germany.

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But the view of Norfolk suppliers and farmers is that the best way to ensure food achieves the highest standards of food safety and hygiene is to buy locally and seasonally.

Paul Campbell, managing director of Local Foods Direct based at Tharston, near Norwich, said over the past few days people had been asking where his supply of cucumbers was coming from.

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'I could tell them that they came from five minutes down the road,' he said.

Mr Campbell said that being able to understand where their food came from gave customers peace of mind, and was already growing in popularity before the outbreak.

'Our emphasis is always on low food miles and traceability.

'We know who all the farmers are and where all our food comes from so nothing gets lost in the supply chain.

'Some food passes through so many different points along the way but most of the produce we supply comes loose or is packed by the farmers on their own sites so we know it has been washed and prepared properly.

'Our customer base is increasing all the time as there is more and more interest in sourcing locally. But people are having to learn to eat seasonally.

'This is a difficult time of year because crops have been delayed by the weather but it is just picking up now so the list of what is available is getting longer again.'

The National Farmers' Union said the outbreak highlighted the importance of trusting in British produce.

Sarah Pettitt, Horticulture and Potatoes Board chairman, said: 'Consumers wanting to buy fruit and vegetables that have been produced by well-qualified, highly professional growers on well-managed farms that have been independently inspected to achieve high standards of food safety, hygiene and environmental protection, can look out for the Red Tractor logo on the food they buy.

'The Union Flag within the logo also confirms that it has been grown here in the UK.'

Lak Shan, manager at Groveland Farm Shop in Roughton, near Cromer, said his customers had also been concerned about cucumbers but he could reassure them they were not from Spain.

'There are plenty of good English cucumbers available at the moment,' he said.

'We try to get everything locally because we find people will buy it even if it is a bit more expensive.

'It is good for our growers and I think people have more confidence in local produce, particularly in the farm assured schemes.'

A spokesman for allotment owners said food scares were one of the contributing factors in the increase in demand for vegetable plots across the UK.

Karen Kenny, spokesman for the eastern region of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, said: 'Everyone is looking to local food production and more and more people are going back to growing their own.

'We have such long waiting lists at the moment but I think more people who were thinking about it may now be putting their names down on lists for allotments. When you grow your own food you know what you have put on it and have more confidence in what you are eating.'

Clarke Willis, managing director of buying group Anglia Farmers, said the outbreak was certainly a talking point but did not think it was causing any major food buying panic.

'I don't think anyone really has a handle on this latest outbreak but we haven't seen it as a really big issue yet.'

Concerns had been raised that the UK would see a glut of unwanted cucumbers causing a collapse in price for UK growers.

A spokesman for Waitrose said they had not seen any great impact on sales or changes in customers' shopping habits, but Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda were last night running offers on cucumbers on their online grocery shopping websites.

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