E.coli food poisoning on rise

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Worries over the growing incidence of food poisoning caused by the E. coli 0157 bacterium are expected to speed up changes to food safety procedures in Scotland.

Scientists believe the latest outbreak, affecting 11 people at Falkirk & District Royal Infirmary, announced last Wednesday, is just one of many inci- dences: the number of cases of food poisoning caused by the organism is expected to rise by 25 per cent over last year's total. Presently, an average of one person per day is falling ill from the infection in Scotland alone.

The rise could even lead to the use of a technology that has met considerable consumer resistance in former incarnations: food irradiation. Last week the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine called for the use of irradiation (which exposes food to high-energy particles that kill living objects but do not alter the food) on imported vegetables in the US, arguing it would have avoided a number of food poisoning outbreaks there last year.

The 32 recommendations made last month by Professor Hugh Pennington for changes in food hygiene practices have barely begun to be implemented. They followed the deaths of 18 people after an outbreak last year centred on a Scottish butcher's.

However, last week Professor Pennington admitted it was "too early" for the changes he had recommended - such as separate staff to handle cooked and raw meats in separate areas of shops - to take effect. He also confessed himself stumped as to why E coli 0157 poisoning should be so much more common in Scotland than the rest of the UK - or, indeed, Europe.

"We're better at recording it than the rest of Europe," he commented. "But that's a small factor. Maybe there's more of it here in the cattle. And there's also an element of bad luck."

Patrick Wall, a consultant epidemiologist at the Public Health Laboratory Service, said: "The prevalence in Scottish herds may be higher, but it's noticeable that it's a geographical thing, that even in Scotland it occurs in the west rather than the east." And why is that? "They don't know."