Concern at spread of lethal food bug

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The deadly E-coli bacterium which last week killed five people in the Scottish food poisoning epidemic can be spread by milk and apple juice as well as by meat, according to government scientists

The Independent has learned that two elderly women died and 12 others were struck down last year in a similar outbreak, which was kept secret.

Scientists have started an investigation into the rising number of cases of E-coli 0157 food poisoning. Researchers from the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS), part of the Department of Health, said that E-coli was being passed on by an increasing number of products, including milk and potatoes, but that scientists had little understanding of how cross-contamination occurred. British cases of E-coli 0157 have risen from 53 in 1985 to 1,046 last year.

Yesterday a Scottish hospital which is treating the bulk of the 282 victims of the latest E-coli epidemic said it was swamped and had closed its doors to non-emergency patients.

A previous outbreak, in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, in August last year, was not made public at the time because the Government was already trying to alleviate fears over the safety of beef in the BSE scare.

David Tregoning, consultant in public-health medicine at Sunderland Health Authority, said that the source of the poisoning was quickly pinpointed to one Sunderland butcher's shop and there had been no need to go public. "The infection was concentrated on a fairly small area," he said.

The butcher at the centre of the scare was closed for an environmental health inspection but, on the advice of local authority scientists, no prosecution was brought.

He said public health officials were becoming concerned at the variety of food products acting as a vehicle for the E-coli bacterium, previously thought to be contained only in under-cooked beef. "We have seen a number of recent cases of cross-contamination to ham and sausage. In the US, it has been found in apple juice; in Sheffield it was in milk, and there are reports from Japan of it being found in radishes. Just how cross- contamination occurs we do not know."

In Parliament yesterday, Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, repeated his assertion that it had been a decision by the local authority, North Lanarkshire Council - and not the Scottish Office - not to release a list of food suppliers linked to the food poisoning until five days after it broke out.