Professor Hugh Pennington, best known for his independent inquiry into the 2005 E. coli outbreak in Wales involving school children, is again stirring the food safety pot from his emeritus post at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. With Europe moving from one food-related scandal to another, Pennington has been doing one media interview after another, making news with each one.
As one of the world’s top food safety experts, it was Pennington who Wales turned to to investigate its largest E. coli O157:H7 outbreak ever (and the second largest in the United Kingdom). More than 150 people, most of them children, were infected in the Wales outbreak, and 31 were hospitalized. One child, 5-year-old Mason Jones, died as a result of his infection. Jones became the face of the tragedy.
Pennington’s inquiry in Wales led to the criminal prosecution that sent the butcher who supplied the schools to prison.
On Europe’s recent scandal involving the substitution of horse meat for beef, Pennington has had a lot to say. First, he says horse meat is safer than beef because it does not contain E. coli. “There are no E. coli cases associated with horse meat, though there are around 1,000 cases linked to cattle in the UK each year,” Pennington said.
He suggests that people have been overreacting to the scandal, and says most people could not tell beef from horse in a taste test. Pennington says horse is “bog standard red meat.” He acknowledges that residues of the horse pain killer known as “bute” are a “theoretical risk,” but says somebody would have to eat “tons” of horse burgers before there would be any harm.
Pennington says Europe needs to legitimize horse meat trade to prevent the type of scandal currently being investigated throughout the continent.
Pennington also told British media that meat is generally safer to eat than leafy green salads. Meat, he says, undergoes a more rigorous regulatory process with more quality control checks. Bagged salads go through a chemical wash to kill bugs, but Pennington says the process does not get them all.
“You can only make vegetables safe by cooking and you can’t obviously do that with salad,” Pennington says. “You could irradiate it — but that would be a ‘no, no’ with the public. You just can’t be absolutely sure that the bagged salad you are buying, which has been put through a chemical wash to kill the bugs, is actually free of them.”
He encourages consumers to wash bagged salads because food pathogens including cryptosporidium, Salmonella and Listeria can be riding along on the vegetables.
Finally, the Scottish investigation into pre-packaged sandwiches, which found bacteria in 4 out of 48 samples, does not concern Pennington that much because spoilage is harmful and it stinks. The investigation by 20 local environmental health departments also found another 9 samples of pre-packaged sandwiches that were “borderline.”
“The bacteria found in these sandwiches, while not harmful, make them very unpleasant to eat,”Pennington says. He says the problem may be in the refrigerated storage or sandwich makers are getting the shelf life wrong.© Food Safety News