An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak and an associated recall have both expanded in Scotland. As a result, Errington Cheese Ltd. must destroy cheese worth at least $334,000, while a top E. coli expert questions whether health officials are “over-interpreting scientific evidence.”
The addition of two more confirmed cases brings the number of ill people in the outbreak to 22, with 13 admitted to hospitals for treatment. Of the 22, at least 19 ate Errington Dunsyre Blue cheese before becoming sick, according to officials.
The victims include a 3-year-old girl from Dunbartonshire who died. Additional children in the Angus area could be added to the outbreak list, according to Food Standards Scotland (FSS).
A blanket ban on the sale of all cheese from Errington Cheese Ltd. of Carnwath, South Lanarkshire, was put in place a week ago after FSS linked the outbreak and death.
The agency found a non-O157 strain of E. coli in one sample of Errington’s Dunsyre Blue cheese, which it called a “serious risk to public health.” In 13 samples of Dunsyre Blue and Lanark White cheeses from Errington Cheese, “presumptive positives” were found for shiga toxin, which means E. coli is likely and the product is viewed as “potentially hazardous to health.”
FSS found E. coli in one sample of Lanark White cheese, but six genes found in people who were infected were not present in that sample. However, the cheese was still found to be “potentially injurious to health or/or unit for human consumption.”
Further “confirmatory” testing is underway and the multi-agency Incident Management Team (IMT) that originally did the investigation is being reconvened to hear the latest developments. It had been disbanded when it declared the outbreak over.
Owners question FSS procedures
Errington Cheese is well-known as one of Scotland’s gourmet cheese producers, and owners of the family operation say the ban on all their cheeses, in addition to the order to destroy recalled products, will likely bankrupt them.
Humphrey Errington, who heads the cheese company, has been reported as saying there is no real evidence connecting his family’s cheese to the outbreak. He contends FSS won’t talk to the family about proof to justify the sales ban. FSS reported it has shared test results with Errington and all the evidence has been reviewed by food examiners.
Errington, however, has raised some doubts in the mind of professor Hugh Pennington, author of “When Food Kills,” who is known for heading independent inquiries into an E. coli outbreak in central Scotland in 1996 and a 2005 E. coli outbreak in Wales. He is frequently cited in British media for his expertise on microbiology and food safety.
Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, says there is “moderately strong” evidence against Errington’s Dunsyre Blue cheese, but “no scientific evidence” on Errington’s other cheese.
The man who is arguably the United Kingdom’s top food safety expert says there is a real possibility that FSS is “over-interpreting scientific evidence.”
Originally, only batches of Dunsyre Blue and Lanark White cheeses from Errington Cheese were involved in the recall. The products were distributed in both Scotland and England.
But, on Sept. 15, all cheeses produced by Errington were added to the recall notice. Those included Lanark Blue, Dunsyre Baby, Maisie’s Kebbuck, Cora Linn and Sir Lancelot cheeses and all cheeses produced by the company up to Sept. 15.
FSS also expanded a public health notice to include England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It warned anyone with E. coli-like symptoms – abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, and kidney ailments – to seek immediate medical attention.
People, especially those with compromised immune systems, were also cautioned against eating any cheese made with unpasteurized raw milk.
The IMT consensus is that the Dunsyre Blue from Errington Cheese Ltd. is the most likely source of the outbreak. It has confirmed 19 of the 22 infected individuals ate the blue cheese before the onset of the illness.
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