Systematic national surveillance of outbreaks of infectious intestinal disease (IID) was introduced in England and Wales in 1992 to provide comprehensive information on causative organisms, sources or vehicles of infection and modes of transmission. We compared information from this system with that published in the peer-reviewed literature between 1 January 1992 and 31 January 2003 to assess the potential effect of publication bias on food-safety policy. During the study period 1763 foodborne outbreaks of IID were reported to national surveillance. Fifty-five were published in the peer-reviewed literature. The peer-reviewed literature overestimated the impacts of milk/milk products, miscellaneous foods (e.g. sandwiches) and desserts and underestimated those of poultry, fish and shellfish, red meat/meat products and eggs/egg products. Without systematic surveillance, knowledge of causative organisms, sources or vehicles of infection and modes of transmission, as gleaned from the peer-reviewed literature, would potentially distort food-safety policy.