Health officials admit delay over poison pork alert

THE DEPARTMENT of Health delayed issuing a warning about pork contaminated with a potentially fatal toxin even though suspect products had already been cleared from supermarket shelves, it emerged yesterday.

Pork items feared to contain a bacteria which causes botulism were cleared from supermarkets on Wednesday afternoon following a warning from the supplier. But a Department of Health warning to the public was not issued until just before midnight last night, too late for the main television news bulletins and many newspapers.

A spokeswoman for Sainsbury's said yesterday that all shelves had been cleared of suspect products produced by Baron Meats, of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire.

A Sainsbury's press release says that at the time it was warned 'we were told that the supplier was in consultation with Maff (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) and the Department of Health'.

But a spokesman for the Department of Health said it had been told of the product withdrawal at just before 6pm on Wednesday. He said there had been a delay of six hours in making a public announcement while urgent discussions took place between Baron Meats and officials from Maff and the Department of Health.

He said officials needed to be satisfied that the situation warranted a public warning and not simply a trade withdrawal.

Baron Meats and its parent company, Hazlewood Foods, refused to comment yesterday.

There have been 10 outbreaks of botulism since 1922 when eight people died after eating duck paste.

The last occured in 1989 when one person died and 27 were made ill after eating hazelnut yoghurt. Of the other eight, five involved home prepared dishes. Other food culprits have been pickled fish, tinned salmon and a kosher airline meal.

Botulism is brought on by eating improperly canned or preserved food contaminated with a toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.

The bacteria is found in soil and untreated water in many parts of the world and is naturally present in the intestines of some animals and fish.

Left unchecked, the toxin causes muscular paralysis and damages the central nervous system. Consuming even minute amounts of the toxin can lead to severe poisoning.

The products affected are: J Sainsbury - 4oz (113g) roast leg of pork and roast leg of pork sold loose at the delicatessen counter; Tesco - 4oz roast pork; Safeway - 4oz roast leg of pork; Littlewoods - roast leg of pork sold loose at delicatessen; Baron Fresh Food Services (distributed on a van sales basis) - 1lb (453g) roast pork vacuum pack and 5lb (2.3kg) bulk roast pork; Booker, Makro, Nurdin and Peacock and Batleys cash and carry outlets - 1lb roast pork vacuum pack; and Booker, Makro, Nurdin and Peacock, and Batleys, low cost (Argyll) Safeway Group and Gardner Merchant - 5lb bulk roast pork.

Open packets should be destroyed. Unopened packets should be returned to the point of sale.