e. coli findings: Hygiene purge on food shops ordered

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The meat industry faces a wide-ranging shake-up following the unveiling yesterday of tough and far-reaching new regulations. Professor Hugh Pennington published the results of his official inquiry into the E.coli outbreaks and recommended wholesale reforms for meat handlers.

The report said tragedies such as the E.coli outbreaks in Scotland, which killed more than 20 people, could be averted if the Government abandoned its "light-touch" approach to enforcement of hygiene regulations.

It recommended a tightening of hygiene standards "from the farm to the fork", calling for education of farm workers on the need for cattle to be free of faeces when going to slaughter.

Prof Pennington's expert group stopped short of blaming deregulation for leading to the deaths but concluded that legislation, rather than "best-practice" recommendations, must be implemented to avert similar outbreaks. The final report offered some comfort to small and rural butchers, who feared it would demand that separate staff should deal with raw and cooked meat, to avert contamination. This was suggested in the interim report in December and could have forced many to close.

Instead, the report says extra staff should be taken on "where possible". At its publication in Edinburgh yesterday Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, brushed aside concern about the effect of deregulation on hygiene and focused on the Government's response, which was to accept the report's recommendations. Mr Forsyth and Prof Pennington, who examined the circumstances leading to the outbreak of E.coli O157 in Lanarkshire in November, in which 18 people died, suggested butchers were struggling to learn a new method of hazard analysis at the heart of EU food laws. The Tories' opponents seized on one paragraph of the report in which the professor, a microbiologist at Aberdeen University, said significant changes to government policy on food safety, including deregulation, had created uncertainty among environmental health officers (EHOs).

"The apparent desire on the part of the Government for a light touch to enforcement has left EHOs uncertain about the policy imperatives and their expected roles," the report said.

The Government accepted all the report's recommendations, including one for a licensing system for butchers not covered by the Meat Products (Hygiene) Regulations of 1994. The change will apply to 1,200 butchers in Scotland at present covered by "less prescriptive" regulations. A key requirement will be separation in storage, sale and display between raw meat and unwrapped cooked- meat products.

Raw meat and cooked meat should also be handled "wherever possible" by separate staff. The Pennington team would have preferred wholly separate staffing, but bowed to concerns of small local butchers. Mr Forsyth put the cost to butchers at pounds 5,000-pounds 20,000 per shop, though where the best practice, embodied in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, is already in place, the cost should be negligible.

The more stringent 1994 regulations apply to butchers selling cooked meat on to other retailers. John M Barr and Son of Wishaw, the butcher at the source of the outbreak, had claimed exemption from 1994 regulations, even though the business was involved in a substantial wholesale trade.

"There clearly has to be a cultural change amongst slaughterhouse operators and their staff," said the report. Introducing all the regulations to slaughterhouses could take up to 18 months, said Peter Scott, of the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers. But he warned that retailers, such as butchers, would be hardest hit by the suggested changes. "Slaughterhouses had to go through a revamp between 1988 and 1993 to meet EC regulations. The retailers are going to have to face that, and it's going to be hard when they face pressure from supermarkets." New legislation will be "unavoidable", said John Fuller, director of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, which represents 11,000 shops in England and Wales.