E. coli report urges more research funds

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The interim findings of an inquiry into the E. coli food poisoning outbreak which killed 16 people in Scotland urges more Government funding for research into the bacterium, its origins and testing, because of the growing threat it poses to human health.

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, announced the findings in the Commons yesterday and accepted without reservation the majority of recommendations put forward by the team of experts lead by Professor Hugh Pennington.

The team were charged with investigating the E. coli 0157 outbreak in Lanarkshire in November and December last year, which is now on record as the second-worst food poisoning incident, in terms of deaths, world- wide.

In his report, Professor Pennington, an authority on E. coli, who two years ago described the spread of E. coli 0157 as a "time bomb waiting to go off", highlights the need for better knowledge of outbreaks in livestock and how they transfer to the human food chain. About 400 people were affected in the last outbreak.

The report calls on the Scottish Office to review guidelines on the investigation and control of food-poisoning outbreaks, as well as its internal arrangements for dealing with them. It also recommends management plans between local authorities and health boards setting out how food-poisoning outbreaks are to be handled, and urges moves to enforce food-safety measures "and ensure the recognition and minimisation of the risks to public health from foodborne disease".

The announcement came less than a week after John Barr, the butcher at the centre of the outbreak, appeared at Hamilton Sheriff Court charged with culpable and reckless conduct over the alleged supply of meat contaminated with E. coli 0157.

Sickness and death among the 78 pensioners who attended a lunch at the Old Parish Church in Wishaw first alerted the authorities to the outbreak. The gravy in meat pies served at the lunch was found to be infected but the contamination of meat and meat products was much more widespread.

E. coli 0157 releases a toxic compound - verocytotoxin - which causes bloody diarrhoea, severe cramps and vomiting. Up to 30 per cent of those infected may suffer kidney problems, and up to 10 per cent - children and the elderly or sick are most vulnerable - may die.

The bacterium was unknown before 1982 but is now believed to be spread in under-cooked beef, milk and cheese from cows, sheep or goats. The Chief Medical Officer's Report for 1995 confirms there were 792 isolations of E. coli 0157 in 1995 in England and Wales - a 93 per cent increase over 1994.

Scotland has one of the highest incidences of E. coli in the world but no one knows why.