Food Standards Scotland has cited an independent review supporting its handling of an E. coli outbreak investigation traced to a cheesemaker in 2016 in response to “ongoing commentary” on the case.
The agency has come under pressure as Errington Cheese has always denied its cheese was responsible for the outbreak. The statement comes after the judgement of a court case on safety standards at Errington Cheese.
A review of Food Standards Scotland’s (FSS) actions and decisions during a recall of products from Errington Cheese during the 2016 E. coli O157 outbreak was done by New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries.
The reviewers found the risk management decisions made and actions taken by South Lanarkshire Council and FSS were “reasonable and proportionate” in regard to protecting public health.
Errington Cheese questioned why New Zealand authorities conducted the review. The firm said it should have been done by a country in the EU operating under the same legislation, such as France, where raw milk cheese can be made.
Between July and mid-September 2016, 26 cases of the same strain of E. coli O157 were identified in the outbreak in which 17 people were hospitalized and a three-year-old girl died.
A report in March 2017 from a multi-agency Incident Management Team concluded the outbreak source was an unpasteurized cows’ milk cheese called Dunsyre Blue. Of 24 primary cases, 15 consumed the cheese within eight days prior to the onset of symptoms.
The outbreak strain was not detected in cheese or the raw milk supply used to make it, but other different Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) and stx-negative E. coli O157 strains were isolated from the raw cow’s milk and unpasteurized cow and sheep cheese made by Errington Cheese.
FSS said investigations into the possible cause of the E. coli O157 outbreak looked at a range of possible food sources and factors common to all patients interviewed, such as recent travel and environmental factors.
Errington Cheese disputed that Dunsyre Blue cheese was the cause of the outbreak.
“We were told at the end of July 2016, when the IMT had only just been set up, that Dunsyre Blue was the only possible cause being investigated, i.e. the investigation did not lead to Dunsyre Blue, it began with Dunsyre Blue and looked at almost nothing else,” according to the company.
In October last year, the Crown Office in Scotland said Errington Cheese would not face prosecution in relation to the death of the child in the outbreak.
In July this year, the company was cleared of breaching food safety laws in a case brought by South Lanarkshire Council and FSS. The case looked at sheep’s milk cheese made by Errington Cheese called Corra Linn and Lanark Blue that was seized by the council last year. It did not cover Dunsyre Blue.
In a 254-page ruling Sheriff Robert Weir QC found the seized cheeses were produced, processed or distributed in compliance with hygiene regulations, except for four batches which should be destroyed.
One batch of Lanark Blue was alleged to contain an identical unidentified E. coli (STEC) to that found in one batch of Dunsyre Blue and three batches of Corra Linn had other unknown strains of E. coli and were condemned due to potential pathogenicity.
Sheriff Weir rejected the appeal to destroy all the firm’s stock of sheep’s milk cheese and lifted an order stopping the sale of Lanark Blue and Corra Linn. A ruling on compensation is due in the next few days with Errington Cheese estimating they are owed nearly £400,000 ($518,000).
FSS said as proceedings did not relate to Dunsyre Blue the court did not have the opportunity to review the evidence considered by the IMT during the outbreak.
“The court condemned some batches of Corra Linn and Lanark Blue cheese because they failed to comply with food safety requirements, and released others,” added the agency.
Errington Cheese said sales of cheese are less than 25 percent of what they were two years ago and are going to be reduced again by 50 percent. Corra Linn will become ready to sell in November or December this year with Lanark Blue and Lanark White currently available.
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