Ministers war over food bug failures

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The Independent Online
Cabinet ministers last night were at each other's throats as Whitehall recriminations undermined the Government's denials of a cover-up over an unpublished report on E.coli-contaminated meat.

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, was said by friends to be "incandescent" with Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, over the failure to alert Professor Hugh Pennington who was carrying out an inquiry into the outbreak which has led to more than 18 deaths in Central Scotland. Professor Pennington angrily condemned the Government's failure to tell him about the pounds 500,000 report as "potty".

Mr Hogg, who was accused of "incompetence" by Labour, faced extraordinary criticism from his Cabinet colleague after telling MPs in an emergency statement to the Commons that the Scottish Office had been informed. In an unprecedented move, that statement was flatly denied by Scottish Office sources with the damaging implication that Mr Hogg, whom they described as "cackhanded," had misled the House of Commons.

Barely concealing contempt for the Agriculture Minister, those close to Mr Forsyth said the Scottish Secretary had told his officials to check with MAFF to make sure there were no other reports waiting to be disclosed. The disarray increased when MAFF officials said that Scottish Office officials attended a meeting to discuss the report on 6 June last year. A spokesman for the Scottish Office said: "Scottish Office ministers were not aware of the report and have not seen a copy."

Scottish ministers know they could be accused of risking the lives of their own constituents if it emerges that the Scottish Office knew about the warnings of E.coli contamination but failed to act to save the Government from further embarrassment at the height of the BSE crisis. The row over Government failures in food safety now threatens to overshadow John Major's launch of the Tory general election campaign, which could come next week.

As the Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister denied a cover-up over the abattoir report, it was disclosed that almost 100 people in the South- east had fallen ill from drinking contaminated water and the British Medical Association had warned of a return to Victorian standards of public health

The Independent learned a watered-down version of the damning meat hygiene report was held back from a group of experts who wrote the original, in spite of the Government's denials that it had been suppressed.

Three of the seven experts, whose report into Britain's abattoirs made grave warnings about E.coli poisoning, told The Independent that a fresh version - removing all mention of E.coli - was never shown to them.

The original report, scheduled for publication in March last year, would have severely embarrassed the Government, coming just as Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, announced a link between BSE and its human counterpart, CJD. Since then, 21 people have died in E.coli outbreaks in Scotland and England.

Mr Hogg was forced to make his statement following claims by Professor Bill Swann, deputy chief veterinary officer for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that the report on standards in British abattoirs, compiled for the Ministry of Agriculture's Meat Hygiene Service (MHS), was suppressed.

He told ITN last night that parts of Mr Hogg's statement caused him considerable concern "because from my own experience I am able to state quite categorically that some of the things he has said are not true".

Also left off the report's circulation list were the European Commission, which was seeking a copy last night, and the independent Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac), which advises the Government on BSE, and the National Farmers' Union. The report expressed concern over the slaughtering of animals whose hides and fleeces were contaminated with faeces and highlighted a raft of other hygiene concerns, which were edited down in the final version.

It warned: "Major faecal contamination on the carcass due to poor dressing practices is a serious cause for concern. Dirty animals arriving at the abattoir are a cause of further contamination. Organisms, such as Escherichia coli 0157 and Salmonella can be introduced into the plant on the skins of dirty livestock."

MAFF said the watered-down report was sent to interest groups. But two of the experts contacted by The Independent, as well as Professor Swann, were also not given a final version.

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Labour has a 21-point lead in the first of a series of Harris polls for The Independent, which will be published fortnightly in the run-up to the general election. It is on 53 per cent, the Tories on 32 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 10 per cent.

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