Food Law News - UK - 1997

15 January 1997: FOOD HYGIENE - Scottish Outbreak of E. coli 0157 - Government Statement on Interim Report

15 January 1997

Scottish Outbreak of E. coli 0157: Statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland House of Commons - on the "Interim Report and Priority Recommendations" made by the "Pennington Group"

The following is an extract from the Statement made in the House of Commons on 15 January 1997. The Pennington Group (Chaired by Professor Pennington) is conducting a review of various issues following the outbreak of E. coli 0157 in Scotland which has resulted in 17 deaths (as at 16.1.97). They have published an Interim report. The following extract from the statement is that part which relates directly to the legislative provisions. The whole
statement and the Interim Report are available on the Scottish Office WWW pages.

"On enforcement, Professor Pennington makes several recommendations.

Existing arrangements on food hygiene are based on EU Directives, brought into force by Regulations under the Food Safety Act 1990. The Codes of Practice under the Act were widely consulted upon and laid before this House.

Professor Pennington recommends urgent consideration of the legislation and action through licensing to ensure that equivalent standards of hygiene apply to premises principally selling to the final consumer as to those premises subject to the Meat Products (Hygiene) Regulations. He also recommends urgent action to ensure the physical separation of raw and cooked meat products using separate counters, refrigerated equipment and separate staff. Pending the outcome of consideration of the legislation he recommends that the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food should be asked to review its guidance on cross contamination. I have asked them to do so.

These recommendations have far reaching implications. I have instructed my officials to examine the practical implications of these recommendations and in doing so to consult consumers, health professionals, environmental health officers, processors and retailers. It would be helpful to Professor Pennington to have more detailed information on the practical aspects. With this in mind, I have therefore asked the Meat and Livestock Commission - the Government's statutory advisers on the industry - to carry out an urgent study of these issues, so that Professor Pennington can take this into account in his final report.

Professor Pennington makes three recommendations in respect of the Codes of Practice under the Food Safety Act 1990, all of which my colleagues and I are accepting. First they recommend a review of Code of Practice 16 which relates to the Food Hazard Warning System. This system, operated by the Government, is to warn Environmental Health Departments of possible or actual food hazards on the basis of information from other areas. Professor Pennington concludes that the difficulty here for the food authority is setting the balance between dealing with routine matters at local level, and advising central Government of emerging problems. As Code of Practice 16 is presently written, the decision to notify central Government is a judgement made locally. He suggests it may be better to define an 'isolated incident' as one which is contained within the boundaries of the food authority. It should however be incumbent upon that authority to notify central Government the moment they have evidence that food distribution is beyond the local authority boundary. It would also be essential to retain the 'major local incident' provision so that central Government is informed immediately even if the problem is contained within the authority's area, but involves a significant number of people; or an organism such as E.coli 0157 or a problem such as botulism is involved.

Allied to this is a recommendation that the code should place greater emphasis on risk and the assessment of all factors relevant to the protection of public health. This key addition would cover such matters as the virulence of the organism, the extent of distribution of the food, the vulnerability of the consumer group and the confidence which could be attached to product recall. The revision would make clear that careful assessment of the risk involved is fundamental to informing decisions on the ground.

Professor Pennington also recommends a review of Code of Practice No.9 which relates to food hygiene inspections, to ensure better targeting of resources on high risk premises.

I accept all of these recommendations. Good lines of communication from local to central Government and timely release by local outbreak control teams of information to the public are crucial, as the paramount consideration must always be the protection of public health. Similarly I agree that there should be careful targeting of resources on the high risk premises. This guidance for enforcement officers will be reflected in the revised Codes of Practice which will go out to consultation shortly.

Professor Pennington makes observations on the potential for cross-contamination in slaughterhouses focusing specifically on the slaughtering of cattle in a clean condition. My Department is pursuing this issue with the Meat Hygiene Service who are well advanced in preparing practical guidance on the definition of acceptable standards of cleanliness in animals presented for slaughter.

Hazard Analysis improves food safety by focusing on critical points in the preparation and handling of food. Professor Pennington therefore recommends that the implementation of these requirements be accelerated particularly for high risk premises which handle raw and cooked foods. I agree. My Department will urge Environmental Health Departments to take early action on it, so that Hazard Analysis covers all high risk premises in their area as soon as possible.

Finally on enforcement, Professor Pennington recommends, in the longer term, a review of the health risk condition contained in the Food Safety Act 1990, which governs among other matters the actions taken by Environmental Health Officers in emergencies. The key question is whether the present position unreasonably inhibits Environmental Health Officers for example in taking decisions under the emergency prohibition provisions in Section 12 of the Act, to close down premises merely on suspicion of connection with an outbreak. I have asked my officials to examine the practical operation of the emergency powers available to EHOs as a matter of urgency and in doing so to consult with consumers, health professionals, environmental health officers, processors and retailers."

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