Hygiene attack on Scottish abattoirs

Public health: Outbreaks of sickness pinned on poor cleanliness as more hit by water bug
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The Independent Online
Abattoir hygiene will be "vigorously criticised" in the imminent report on last November's E.coli 0157 outbreak in Lanarkshire, which killed 18 people, The Independent has learnt.

A senior Scottish health scientist, who has provided key data to help track down the source of the contamination, said that the forthcoming report will "deal with abattoir hygiene very vigorously", and added: "If hygiene standards in abattoirs were satisfactory, then you wouldn't get E.coli outbreaks."

The comments by Bill Reilly, assistant director of the Scottish Centre for Infection and Environmental Health in Glasgow, will add weight to those who suspect that lives might have been saved if a controversial report, Red Meat, on hygiene standards in British abattoirs had not been suppressed and then watered down by the Government.

Meanwhile, John Major, continued to try and damp down the internal Whitehall row over the suppression of the report by saying that it was "ludicrous" to suggest that senior ministers were at each others' throats over the fact that the Scottish Office had said it only received a copy of the full report on Thursday.

The first, 54-page version was finished on 14 December 1995, and contained numerous criticisms and evaluations of abattoirs' practices. A final 28- page version was issued in June 1996 to selected food industry organisations, but never officially referred to in any public government document.

Professor Hugh Pennington, who is working on a final report into the Lanarkshire E.coli outbreak, which centred on a single butcher's shop, also said yesterday that it was now "very important" that he was given the earlier draft reports of the Meat Hygiene Service's survey of abattoirs.

"I have only seen the final report, which one might have to say, has an element of sanitisation about it," he said. "It doesn't have raw data or numbers or percentages - it has given rather general descriptions."

The Scottish Office said that Professor Pennington would be given full access to the reports.

Mr Reilly, who has not yet seen the report, insisted that improving hygiene standards could have an immediate effect on preventing wide-scale E.coli 0157 infection. "When we have outbreaks, as opposed to sporadic cases, meat features in it," he said. "If the initial vehicle of infection was raw meat, it's possible that the abattoir would be the source."

But it can take two to three weeks for people to become ill from abattoir- infected meat - by which time no trace may remain at the source.

The Lanarkshire outbreak was the second worst case of E.coli poisoning in the world. An outbreak in Canada killed 19 pensioners in a nursing home in 1985.

Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, showed his displeasure over the affair when he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he would have liked to have seen the report.

In the Commons on Thursday, Mr Major told Tony Blair that there were "huge numbers of such working documents every year. If they all came to ministers for ministers to read every one, nothing else would be done."