Hunt for guests following E coli alert

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Health officials were last night trying to track down hundreds of guests who attended a wedding reception after discovering that one of the dishes which was served contained the E coli bacteria.

Ian Coghill, director of environmental services in Birmingham, said that many of the guests work in the catering industry and he was concerned that the infection could spread widely.

"We know at least 30 of the guests at the wedding work in the food industry and we are worried about the potential for the infection to be spread to others," he said.

"It's important we contact those who work in the food industry to make sure they are not infected and are not likely to pass E coli on in their own businesses or where they work."

The source of the outbreak has been traced to a lamb dish served at the reception, held at Swanshurst Girls School, in the Billesley area of the city, earlier this month. Mr Coghill said 600 people had been contacted since the outbreak began, but more than 1,400 are believed to have attended the wedding.

"E coli is not like any other food-poisoning bug. It is life- threatening and is easily passed from person to person - even if the person who is carrying the E coli has no symptoms," he said.

Two of seven children who contracted the potentially deadly bug at the reception remain stable in Birmingham's Children's Hospital. The others have been released.

Earlier this year an outbreak of E coli in Scotland killed 19 people, making it the equal to the world's worst outbreak in Canada 12 years ago.

The source of the infection was traced to a butcher's shop in Wishaw which had won the Scottish Butcher of the Year title just a few months previously.

John Barr, owner of the shop, was forced to close down but reopened three months later. The scale of the outbreak led to the Government commissioning a report, chaired by Professor Hugh Pennington, which laid down a list of guidelines for the safe storage of meat.

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.

Requirements included that cooked and raw meats be kept in separate refrigerators and different chopping boards be used for each.

Staff were also told to wear gloves which should be changed every time they touched a different kind of meat.

Many butchers complained that they could not afford to buy all the equipment necessary and that they did not have the space for two or three different refrigerators.

It was estimated that the implementation of the report could cost the Scottish meat industry up to pounds 40m.