Early disclosure urged of findings on killer food bug

Inquiry chief calls on ministers to resist playing politics with report on Scottish E.coli outbreak
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The Independent Online
The food safety expert who led the inquiry into last year's fatal E. coli outbreak in Scotland yesterday urged the Government not to suppress the publication of his report's findings until after the election.

It was claimed yesterday that the inquiry would severely criticise the Government for allowing vital improvements to hygiene practices in the food industry to be delayed because of added cost. The inquiry team was said to be unhappy that the Government had set safety targets for the food industry and then relaxed them.

In a radio interview yesterday, Professor Hugh Pennington said the account was "speculative" and that he would submit the final version of the report to the Scottish Office by next Monday.

The interim report into the food poisoning outbreak in which 18 people died condemned the Ministry of Agriculture for its "softly, softly" approach to implementing food safety improvements. It will be up to the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, who commissioned the report, to decide when the final version should be made public.

Professor Pennington, of Aberdeen University, said: "We don't publish it. We submit it to the Secretary of State and then it's up to him to decide what to do with it. Clearly the election is a spoiler in the sense that it gets in the way of the normal events in terms of the Government responding to things in a reasonable time-scale.

"But, still, I would hope the issues here are so important that there can be a rapid response to it and then the report can appear in the public domain."

The Scottish Office would only say that it was the Government's "intention" to publish the report before the general election. A spokesman added: "Ministers are committed to publishing the final report as soon as possible after it has been received. A response by the Government will be published on the same day."

Professor Pennington said his report had still not been finalised. "We'll be making a whole range of recommendations which are obviously to do with improvements in food safety over a wide range of issues. We had an outbreak of food poisoning and clearly what we're trying to do is tighten the food safety procedures ...

"It's fair to say that we have a lot of very good systems there in place to do that, but I think that implementation could often be improved and we need a sharp focus."

He added that the emergence of new bugs had exposed failings in the system and taken many in the industry by surprise. "E. coli 157 is a new organism, it's only been around 15 years, and it's providing a very severe test to the system and showing up weak spots," he said. "By and large, the system works quite well but there are certainly areas for improvement."

Labour, which is looking to make food safety into a key election issue, has identified the report as a potentially rich source of ammunition.

George Robertson, shadow Scottish Secretary, said he had been promised by Mr Forsyth that the final report would be made public before the election. "Therefore the Government's handling of the E. coli issue will be open for discussion during the final weeks of the campaign."