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Scottish child dead; controversy plagues E. coli investigation

The events that led to the death of a Scottish child, who was among 20 people infected with E. coli O157 (VTEC), began with the July 29 “precautionary recall” of two batches of Dunsyre Blue cheese suspected of containing the pathogen.

Recalled were the “C22” batch with best-before dates of July 19-26 and the “D14” batch with production dates of Aug. 7-15. The cheese was made with unpasteurized, raw milk.

Dbluecheese_406x250Selina Cairns, daughter of the founder of Errington Cheese (the company that recalled the Dunsyre Blue cheese for possible E. coli O157 contamination), has said all of the testing has turned out negative.

Cairns said all their company testing for almost six months previous, all Food Safety Authority testing, all customer and all farm testing — all were negative for E. coli O157. This included six samples taken from the “D14” batch.

“We don’t know why IMT (Incident Management Team) concluded that cheese batches C22 and D14 were responsible for illnesses as the wholesalers who supplied all the restaurants did not keep a record of which batches went to which customers; any of ten batches might have supplied these restaurants. We know from both our and the authority’s tests that D14 was negative for E. coli,” she said in a recent statement to media outlets.

IMT is led by Health Protection Scotland (HPS), which has yet to declare the outbreak over. It also has not confirmed the Errington Cheese claims that all the testing has been negative for E. coli.

In August, Scotland’s Food Standards Authority (FSA) blamed the outbreak on the popular Dunsyre Blue cheese. HPS reported that a majority of the 20 people infected with E. coli, including two people from England, ate the cheese, but not everyone did.

IMT has declined to provide Errington Cheese with copies of the outbreak report, food histories of those infected, including 11 people who were hospitalized, and other supporting documents, nor has the official investigation named the locations where the suspect cheese was sold.

At an Aug. 17 meeting of the FSA board of directors, the organization’s CEO reported that two batches of Dunsyre Blue produced by the Errington Cheese Company in Lanark had been associated with the outbreak.

“This particular type of blue cheese is made with unpasteurized cow’s milk,” Geoff Ogilvie said.

The failure to name locations where the cheese was sold has come under fire by environmental health experts who say that vital information was kept from the public at a time when it might have helped people with symptoms to seek medical care.

In a statement, Cairns said she suspects she is the target of the investigation.

“At the moment they appear to be working to pin something on me; they seem to be taking no notice of an independent report carried out by a specialist microbiologist in the field or the large stack of of microbiological evidence showing E. coli O157 is NOT in the cheese,” she told media outlets.

“I think they need to make a statement saying, at the least, that they have found no trace of E. coli O157 in the recalled Dunsyre and are looking into other potential sources,” Cairns added. “At some point someone must look at this objectively and give scientific/microbiological evidence precedence over ‘circumstantial statistical analysis.’”

IMT has told local media that it considers the Dunsyre Blue cheeses the most likely cause of the outbreak. Most of the illnesses occurred before the recall was announced, and all victims are suffering from the same strain of E. coli O157, suggesting a common source.

The name, age, and hometown of the child who died as a result of the outbreak has not yet been released.

In 1994, the Errington Cheese Co., led by its founder Humphrey Errington, went to court to contest food safety authorities who had blamed the cheesemaker for what came to be known as the “Listeria Hysteria of 1989” after some people in Switzerland died. Errington was cleared and won the equivalent of almost $500,000 in court costs and compensation.

Errington Cheese is run by Cairns and her husband, who are not sounding any more likely to accept findings they believe are in error. She contends HPS is “wrecking the reputation of dairy products in the whole country by making them appear unsafe.”

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