The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published the largest-ever nationwide survey of the food hygiene knowledge of workers in the catering industry - with worrying results.

The survey of over 1,000 workers and managers in small independent catering businesses revealed that more than a third of staff (39%) are neglecting to wash their hands after visits to the lavatory whilst at work. The research also demonstrated that half of all those interviewed (53%) did not appear to wash their hands before preparing food.

Just over half (55%) of the businesses in the survey had been in operation for under two years and two thirds (70%) employed up to four full time employees. Less than two thirds (59%) of the catering workers questioned had a certificate in basic food hygiene and only 3% of catering managers interviewed said retaining skilled, trained staff was important to their business. Only 32% believed good food hygiene practices were important to their business compared with 64% who saw good food as the key to keeping their customers.

In the second phase, launched yesterday [Thursday], of its five-year Food Hygiene Campaign, the Food Standards Agency is focusing attention on small to medium-sized independent catering businesses. In a drive to push up food hygiene standards in restaurants, cafes, takeaways, roadside snack bars, pubs, B&Bs and hotel kitchens, over 300,000 catering businesses around the UK will receive food safety information and a free practical training video.

Encouragingly, the survey discovered that good food hygiene came top of the list of priorities for catering managers, with just under half (42%) listing it as a key factor in the success of their business and there was a general understanding among all workers that they should wash their hands (64%). Good food hygiene practices and clean surroundings were also named as important by staff, but only 5% of catering workers and managers made the link between washing hands and personal hygiene, recognising it as something specific to take care of in the workplace.

In the Agency's 2001 annual 'Consumer Attitudes Survey', more than half of all consumers (51%) expressed concern about the standards of hygiene in catering businesses. If consumers think standards are poor, they can take action by complaining direct to the catering business or their local environmental health officer (EHO). On the Food Standard Agency's website www.food.gov.uk people can search for their nearest local environmental health department by postcode. Drawing attention to bad experiences is one way of driving home to businesses how important food hygiene is to consumers, the Agency said.