from Malcolm Walpole, chief executive, Alaska Food Diagnostics

Sir; The E.coli outbreak in County Durham reported over the weekend highlights yet again how public health continues to be put at risk from an absence of strict food safety testing legislation.

The most recent outbreak has seen a one-year-old and a 75 year-old hospitalised - the two age groups at the most serious risk from food poisoning. Stricter controls imposed on the food production industry would help prevent such incidents.

In 2000, 500 people died in the UK as a result of food poisoning and more than 1.3 million people suffered symptoms at an estimated cost to the health service and food industry of over £1.5bn.

Most consumers wrongly assume all food products have passed stringent tests before reaching shop shelves. But although highly recommended by the key food agencies, these tests are not mandatory and many food products still reach shops without being fully tested, leaving us all unnecessarily vulnerable to harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness and even death.

The majority of food poisoning cases are preventable, illustrating a clear need for compulsory food safety tests that provide speedy and accurate results, so that any contaminated products can be removed well before they reach the consumer.

Changes in our eating habits mean we are more likely to be exposed to harmful bacteria than ever before. We eat out more often and consume an increasing amount of convenience foods, making the need for effective food safety controls during processing even more important.

The expansion of the EU also emphasises the need for tighter controls. Consumers and industry should benefit from the wider choice this will bring, but increasing internationalisation of food production will need careful policing.