Butchers on the block in report on E.coli

Click to follow
Slaughterhouses and small butchers are likely to bear the brunt of new regulations expected to emerge in the Pennington report, to be published this afternoon.

The report by Professor Hugh Pennington was delivered yesterday to the Scottish Office, which commissioned it after the catastrophic outbreak of E.coli O157 food poisoning last October in Lanarkshire, Scotland.

A total of 18 people died, beginning with an outbreak in an old people's home, and hundreds fell ill.

But, although the infection was traced to a butcher in Wishaw, the report is not expected to point fingers at the cause of that particular outbreak.

Scottish scientists have told The Independent that it is often difficult to trace the original infection, which could have arisen in a slaughterhouse, more than a few days after it arises.

Professor Pennington is a leading microbiologist based at Aberdeen University, and was asked by the Government to conduct a scientific inquiry to examine "the circumstances that led to the outbreak" in Scotland and to advise on "the implications for food safety and the general lessons to be learned". But last night Paul Santoni, the lawyer handling compensation claims for about 50 of the Scottish victims of the outbreak, claimed the report would be "meaningless" for them unless it tackles the issue of how the outbreak began.

"The report must deal with the causes of the outbreak," he said. "If it does not, then everything else is virtually meaningless. It would be like saying 'I'm about to tell you how to make the patient better - but not what's wrong with them'."

Professor Pennington's interim report, delivered on 31 December, found fault with practices in slaughterhouse hygiene practices, and also recommended that shops selling both raw and cooked meats should be licensed, and have separate staff, counters and equipment for the meat.

Bacterial infection is easily spread from raw meat, which can be contaminated by faecal material at slaughterhouses, on to cooked meat. E.coli O157 is especially infectious: research shows that as few as 20 cells may be enough to make a person ill.

But implementing the new regulations will be expensive. Slaughterhouses would probably have to implement more thorough washing of animals and carcasses.

Small butchers would be especially hard hit by any regulation requiring extra staff. The Scottish Federation of Meat Traders estimates that every extra person would cost the employer on average pounds 15,000.

Ray Darlington, of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, which represents 11,000 small and independent butchers in England and Wales, said: "We have made representations to the Government. A lot of our members have got separate counters but not separate staff. Hopefully somebody has taken all this into account."

If the report does insist on separate staff, some small butchers might be forced to close.

There was no way to forecast how many might close, nor how many extra people they would have to take on, he said. "We are just going to have to wait and see and then make our decision," Mr Darlington said.

But the seriousness of the danger means that any recommendations would probably be implemented rapidly, he said.

The Scottish Office will be publishing its response to the report today, just 24 hours after its delivery. By contrast, when Professor Pennington delivered his interim report it was not published for a fortnight.

Last month, some reports suggested that a Cabinet committee had decided not to implement all of Professor Pennington's recommendations from his interim report. But this was denied by the Scottish Office.

Professor Pennington has already recommended more research into E.coli O157. The bacterium was unknown before 1982. But outbreaks have become comparatively frequent. The Chief Medical Officer's report for 1995 confirms there were 792 isolations of E.coli O157 in 1995 in England and Wales - a 93-per-cent increase.

The dramatic increase is due in part to better surveillance and more testing but more cases are occurring too. Scotland has one of the highest incidences in the world but no one knows why. The previous largest outbreak was in West Lothian in 1994, when 100 people were infected. Scientists traced the source to a dairy.

It can be spread in contaminated, under-cooked beef, and milk and cheese from cows, sheep or goats.

E. coli O157, also known as VTEC, for verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli, releases a poison, verocytotoxin, which causes bloody diarrhoea, severe cramps and vomiting. Up to 30 per cent of those infected may suffer kidney problems. Up to 10 per cent - children and the elderly or sick are most vulnerable - may die.