Damning E.coli report held back

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The Independent Online
A watered-down version of a damning meat hygiene report which the Government claims was not suppressed was held back from a group of experts who wrote the original.

Three of the seven experts, whose report into Britain's abattoirs made grave warnings about E. coli poisoning, told The Independent yesterday that a fresh version - removing all mention of E. coli - was never shown to them.

The original report, scheduled for publication in March last year, would have severely embarrassed the Government, coming just as Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, announced a link between BSE and its human counterpart CJD. Since then, 21 people have died in E. coli outbreaks in Scotland and England.

The revelations came on a day when ministers faced widespread criticism over public health standards. As the Prime Minister and Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, yesterday sought to re-assure Parliament that they did not suppress the abattoir report, it was disclosed that almost 100 people in the South-east had fallen ill from drinking contaminated water and the British Medical Association had warned of a return to Victorian standards of public health.

Mr Hogg was forced to make a statement in the Commons following claims by Professor Bill Swann, deputy chief veterinary officer for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that a report on standards in British abattoirs, compiled for the Ministry of Agriculture's Meat Hygiene Service (MHS), was suppressed.

Among those who said they, too, were kept in the dark over the report was Professor Hugh Pennington, head of the team investigating the E. coli outbreak which has killed 18 people in Central Scotland. He said he was "angry" that he had not been told about it. Also left off its circulation list were the independent Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac), which advises the Government on BSE, and the National Farmers' Union.

The original report into a pounds 1m audit of over 400 slaughterhouses was edited by Professor Swann while he headed an audit team for the MHS. It expressed concern over the slaughtering of animals whose hides and fleeces were contaminated with faeces and highlighted a raft of other hygiene concerns, which were edited down in the final version.

The original report said: "Organisms such as Escherichia coli 0157 and salmonella can be introduced into the plant on the skins of dirty livestock." It recommended introducing a national policy on contamination of abattoirs by livestock and was submitted to the MHS in December 1995. Professor Swann said it was to have been published in March 1996 but he was put under pressure to water down its findings and it finally appeared in an edited form, and without his knowledge, in August 1996.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) said the report was circulated to interest groups.

But Professor Swann said: "I wasn't made aware of this final version until today. ...I am furious that MAFF should have put out in an edited version with my name on it without my consent. I would not have given that consent."

Two of the experts contacted by The Independent were also not sent the final version.