Lethal bug in apple juice

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The deadly E-coli bacterium which last week killed five people in the Scottish food poisoning epidemic can be spread by milk and apple juice as well as by meat, according to government scientists

The Independent has learned that two elderly women died and 12 others were struck down last year in a similar outbreak, which was kept secret.

Scientists have started an investigation into the rising number of cases of E-coli 0157 food poisoning. Researchers from the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS), part of the Department of Health, said that E-coli was being passed on by an increasing number of products, including milk and potatoes, but that the scientists had little understanding of how cross- contamination occurred. British cases of E-coli 0157 have risen from 53 in 1985 to 1,046 last year.

Yesterday a Scottish hospital which is treating the bulk of the 282 victims of the latest E-coli epidemic said it was swamped and had closed its doors to non-emergency patients.

A previous outbreak, in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, in August last year, was not made public at the time because the Government was already trying to alleviate fears over the safety of beef in the BSE scare.

David Tregoning, consultant in public-health medicine at Sunderland Health Authority, said that the source of the poisoning was quickly pinpointed to one Sunderland butcher's shop and there had been no need to go public. "The infection was concentrated on a fairly small area," he said.

The butcher at the centre of the scare was closed for an environmental health inspection but, on the advice of local authority scientists, no prosecution was brought.

Mr Tregoning said that the infection was likely to have been spread by mis-handling of meat, and that a quantity of cold-meat stock had been destroyed.

Several victims are pursuing private legal actions against the butcher.

He added that public health officials were becoming increasingly concerned at the variety of food products acting as a vehicle for the E-coli bacterium, which was previously thought to be contained only in under-cooked beef. "We are seeing a wider number of vehicles for transmission than previously suspected," he said.

"We have seen a number of recent cases of cross contamination to ham and sausage. In the US it has been found in apple juice; in Sheffield it was in milk, and there are reports from Japan of it being found in sprouting radishes. Just how the cross-contamination occurs we do not know."

The PHLS study, which began in May, was set up to identify the risk factors of E-coli 0157, and the types of products that acted as vehicles. The research was ordered by the Department of Health after concern that there had been 28 major outbreaks of E-coli 0157 since 1992 and 17 of them had resulted from food- borne transmission.

The bacterium had been carried by raw potatoes, milk and yoghurt as well as turkey-roll sandwiches and the minced beef products which were commonly regarded as the likely source. It is also spread by contact with animals.

Meanwhile, scientists in America and Canada have traced an outbreak of E-coli 0157, which struck down 45 people last month, to a supply of unpasteurised apple juice.

In Scotland, the Monklands Hospital in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, has taken on an extra 12 nurses to deal with 32 adults and one child who are being treated in the hospital for illness caused by the food bug.

The epidemic, which has been linked to a butcher in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, has led to 57 people - 48 adults and nine children - being treated in hospitals throughout Scotland. Nearly 1,000 people have contacted a helpline set up to deal with the concerns of the public.

In Parliament yesterday, Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, denied he had misled the Commons over the epidemic, and repeated his assertion that it had been a decision by the local authority, North Lanarkshire Council - and not the Scottish Office - not to release a list of food suppliers linked to the food poisoning until five days after it broke out.