A cheese company linked to an E. coli outbreak in the United Kingdom has been allowed to restart sales of products.

Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese can resume selling batches of five raw milk cheeses made on or after Oct. 1, 2023. This includes the mild, creamy, tasty, mature, and smoked Lancashire varieties, plus Waitrose and Partners, Farmhouse Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese. 

However, any of these cheeses put on the market up to and including Feb. 5, 2024, should not be eaten and must be returned to the place of purchase for a refund.

There are now 36 cases of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O145 linked to the outbreak, up from 30 in an earlier update. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), Public Health Scotland (PHS), and other agencies are investigating the incident.

Sick people live in England, Wales and Scotland. They fell ill from late July 2023, with the majority in December and all had symptom onset before Dec. 24, 2023.

Of 19 people with information available, a dozen reported bloody diarrhea, and 11 have been hospitalized. One person developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and another died.

For 30 cases where information is known, 15 are female, and 15 are male, with ages ranging from 7 to 81 and a median of 35 years old. 

Negative testing
More than 40 samples of milk and cheese made by Kirkham’s over five months have been tested since the investigation began, and none showed evidence of the outbreak strain, according to the company.

The cheesemaker added that of 31 people infected with the outbreak strain, only eight said they had consumed Kirkham’s cheese as one of other foods before infection, and seven of these had a mixed cheese and charcuterie plate served by another firm.

Graham Kirkham said: “The suspect pathogen is a member of a class of organisms, so-called non-O157 STEC, for which no accredited commercial tests are currently available, and this is an issue not just for raw milk cheesemakers, but other food suppliers as well.

“With this in mind, and because food safety is of the utmost importance to our business, we are working with the technical experts at the Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association on a review of all our milk production and food safety management systems, making sure that even the smallest risk is identified and dealt with,” he said.

Ongoing investigation
In January, Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive, told an agency board meeting that the outbreak strain was associated with “higher than typical” medical complications.

“Epidemiological investigations remain ongoing, and we are working closely with the Food Standards Agency and our devolved counterparts to progress food chain investigations. Alongside partner agencies, we continue managing two further STEC outbreaks from a different serogroup.”

Tina Potter, head of incidents at the FSA, said the company had narrowed down the product recall notice issued in December.

“We will continue to support the local authorities and businesses actively working with us as part of our ongoing response to the outbreak. We continue to urge consumers to check if they have any of these products and ensure they follow the advice and avoid eating any cheeses identified in the updated product recall information notice.”   

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