Staff used washing-up liquid to clean factory, E.coli inquiry told

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THE manager of a butcher's premises thought that the "bio" prefix of "biodegradable washing-up liquid" meant it would kill bacteria, an inquiry into the world's worst outbreak of E.coli O157 food poisoning heard yesterday.

Robert Hepburn, 41, who was the manager of the butcher's factory within the John M Barr premises in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, also said that staff at John Barr's butcher's premises did not use temperature probes when cooking joints of meat, and had no written instructions or formal training.

But he said he could not explain how health experts investigating the outbreak's sources found traces of the E.coli O157 bacteria on a vacuum- packing machine and on the rim of a meat boiler.

The Lanarkshire outbreak began in November 1996 and eventually killed 21 elderly people. The Barr premises have been implicated as a major source of food potentially contaminated with E.coli O157.

Under cross-examination at the fatal accident inquiry, now in its third week, Mr Hepburn denied that cleaning procedures were skimped by staff working "flat-out" in a busy environment. To clean the factory part of the premises, staff used biodegradable washing-up liquid.

"You thought the word `bio' meant kill bacteria?," he was asked by Dennis Crawley, counsel for Wishaw Old Parish Church, which organised a church lunch where several elderly pensioners contracted the bug, and also the Bankview nursing home, five of whose residents died in the outbreak.

"Yes," replied Mr Hepburn.

He said that batch cooking of meat such as pork, roast beef and gammon, took place in a large boiler four times a week. The meats came from suppliers located at Wishaw abattoir and in Glasgow, and after cooking they were vacuum-packed. But he said that staff received no formal training.

The inquiry continues.