'Desperate bid' to shift E.coli meat

A LEADING Scottish food chain mounted a desperate mission to clear potentially deadly food from its shelves after receiving incorrect advice from the butcher at the centre of an E.coli food poisoning scare, an inquiry heard yesterday.

After hearing media reports of a food poisoning scare at an old people's home, John Skedzieleuski, fresh food controller for the food chain Scotmid, called John Barr, the Lanarkshire butcher at the centre of an E.coli food poisoning scare, on Sunday morning, 24 November 1996. But Mr Barr reassured him that there was nothing to worry about because he only supplied the chain with sausages, not cooked meat.

In theory, cooked meat poses a greater risk of causing food poisoning than uncooked sausages, because the cooking process should kill off any harmful organisms. But contaminated cooked meat would pose a serious risk to consumers.

Giving evidence to the fatal accident inquiry into the E.coli O157 outbreak, Mr Skedzieleuski said: "I phoned Mr Barr and asked him what the situation was. He said this was nothing to do with us, there was no problem. It was just cooked meat, and he did not supply us with cooked meat."

He said Mr Barr had sounded "upset" during the telephone conversation, and had told him he had withdrawn cooked meat from sale at his own premises. The outbreak was the world's worst E.coli outbreak: 21 elderly people died.

Mr Skedzieleuski later arranged with fellow staff to telephone round every Scotmid store that was open that Sunday to remove all John Barr sausage products from their shelves - as these were the only Barr products he believed they had.

On Monday, other Scotmid stores were told to follow suit. But Mr Skedzieleuski was told by environmental health officials that cooked meat from Mr Barr's shop had been supplied to three of its six stores in Bonnybridge, central Scotland.

The chain immediately despatched a seven-man team to the town to make sure that cooked meat was removed from sale and that a thorough cleaning operation was carried out at the stores.

Mr Skedzieleuski told Paul Cullen QC, for Scotmid, that during the Sunday telephone conversation Mr Barr had not mentioned that he had been visited by environmental health officials, nor that he had been asked to remove the cooked meats from his own shop.

The inquiry has already been told that five residents of a nursing home for the elderly had that weekend eaten sandwiches made with cooked meat supplied by a local Scotmid store.

The inquiry in Motherwell heard yesterday that some food shops would not have known that meat they were selling came from John Barr.

John McKinley, a meat distributor, told the inquiry that he made deliveries to several shops throughout central Scotland, supplying them with some products of John Barr.

He said he bought his supplies from another company, Devine Quality Meats of Motherwell, which in turn bought supplies of some top-of-the-range meat such as roast silverside from John Barr.

He said he collected his supplies from Devine, but the Barr products were not labelled as having come from Mr Barr's shop. In response to questioning, he agreed that when he made his daily deliveries to shops, they would not necessarily know that John Barr was the ultimate source of some items, like roast beef.

The inquiry continues.