Butcher reopens with a clean slate

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The Independent Online
He looked like a man waking from a long dream. Or, as he put it, a nightmare.

Eighteen people had died and more than 400 had fallen ill since John Barr last opened his butcher's shop for business, so twisting the lock on the door was no easy matter. "I didn't sleep much last night," he said. "I can't say I'm happy to open up again; so many people have died. But let's say I'm relieved."

Mr Barr's shop in Wishaw, outside Glasgow, was closed three months ago after the death of Harry Shaw, aged 80, the first of 18 people to succumb to the deadly effects of E.coli 0157 bacteria poisoning.

The butcher is facing a charge of culpable and reckless conduct over the supply of cold meats which caused illness, but no deaths, at an 18th birthday party. But environmental health officials gave him the all-clear to reopen yesterday after satisfying themselves that his shop presented no risk to the public.

His staff of 30-plus - who he had continued to pay during the crisis - turned out in crisp white uniforms, smiling broadly as they brought out tray after tray of pristine meats. And, in line with the recommendations of Professor Hugh Pennington, the microbiologist appointed to investigate the outbreak, there were now two counters; one for cooked and another for uncooked meats.

"We have followed Professor Pennington's report to the letter and possibly even further than that to make sure that the public is 150 per cent safe," said Mr Barr, a quietly-spoken man of 51, well-loved in the community but clearly deeply affected by what has happened. "There has been nothing to prove it came from here," he said defensively.

"The past three months have been a complete nightmare. There were times at the beginning when I thought I would never reopen, but then I began to get the phone calls and more than 600 letters and cards of support from as far away as Australia and America. And then I began to wonder what would happen to my staff if I closed, and I knew I would have to try again. "

Lawyers for the hundreds who fell ill said yesterday that they felt it was too soon for the butcher to reopen. Paul Santoni, who is representing more than 60, and Lucy Kennedy, who has more than 30 E.coli clients, said Mr Barr's prosecution should have come first.

But, in Wishaw, they were in the minority. Most others were delighted that their favourite butcher had reopened. First through the door at 7.30am was a 22-year-old microbiology student who bought two meat bridies costing 88p. "My family have been coming here for years and we're not going to stop now," said David Goodwin.

By 10am the shop was packed with customers and goodwill, with backslapping and congratulations. Customers and staff were anxious to convey their condolences to the bereaved but, gradually, a carnival atmosphere descended.

Outside, six elderly women rounded a corner and, wearing sashes bearing the word "Congratulations", skipped down the road towards the shop singing a song they had made up. It was terribly sung but the chorus went: "If yae're no John Barr, then yae're no use tae us..."