Food poisoning report urges shop licences

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The interim findings of the inquiry into the E. coli food poisoning in Scotland which killed 16 people urges more government funding for research into the bacterium, which poses a growing threat to food safety.

In his report, Professor Hugh Pennington, who two years ago described the spread of E. coli 0157 as a "time-bomb waiting to go off", highlights the need for scientific investigation of outbreaks in cattle and transfer to the human food chain.

Professor Pennington also outlines several measures to prevent similar outbreaks to that in Lanarkshire last November and December, which is on record as the second worst food poisoning episode worldwide, affecting about 400 people.

The report calls on the Scottish Office to review the guidelines relating to the investigation and control of food poisoning outbreaks and says the law should be changed to permit the introduction of selective licensing for food premises.

It recommends the physical separation, within premises, of raw and cooked meat products using separate counters, equipment and staff.

The report appears less than a week after John Barr, the butcher from Wishaw 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 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 subsequently found to be infected.

Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, ordered the inquiry into the Lanarkshire outbreak shortly after, and Professor Pennington, a leading authority on the bacterium at the Department of Microbiology at Aberdeen University, was asked to lead the team of experts. Mr Forsyth who announced the interim findings in a Commons statement yesterday, accepted many of Professor Pennington's recommendations.

The bacterium was unknown before 1982 but is now believed to be spread in under-cooked beef, and milk and cheese from cows, sheep or goats. Some public health experts have been warning of the dangers of E. coli 0157 since the early 1990s, when it became apparent that the number of cases was increasing. 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.

The dramatic increase is due in part to better surveillance and more testing but more cases are occurring too. Scotland has one of the highest incidences in the world but no one knows why. The previous largest outbreak was in West Lothian in 1994 when 100 people were infected. Scientists traced the source to a dairy.

E. coli 0157 - also known as VTEC, for verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli - releases a poison, 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.