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Wednesday, August 19, 1998 Published at 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK


Sheriff criticises E. coli butcher

The shop was clean but not safe

James Shaw: butcher was dishonest, inspectors too slow
A Scottish butcher and environmental health authorities have been severely criticised by a report into the world's worst recorded outbreak of E. coli food poisoning.

Twenty-one people died in 1996 after eating contaminated meat supplied by a butcher's shop in Wishaw, Lanarkshire.

The report said the shopkeeper, John Barr, had been ignorant of food hygiene procedures and deceived food inspectors.

BBC Scotland Correspondent Andrew Cassell reports
The environmental health service has been told it acted too slowly in linking the outbreak to Mr Barr's shop.

Sheriff Principal Graham Cox's report was based on a two-month inquiry that was held in Motherwell earlier this year.

Not safe

The Sheriff said: "I have no doubt Mr John Barr liked a clean shop and maintained a clean shop.

[ image: John Barr has already faced criminal proceedings]
John Barr has already faced criminal proceedings
"What he failed to do was to maintain a safe shop and the main ingredient of his failure was ignorance of the requirements which would produce that result."

The Sheriff said the butcher also paid only lip service to environmental health officers so that he could conceal the full extent of his business operations. In this way, he was able to avoid very tight food regulations set out in 1994.

Expert witness Dr Richard North assesses the inquiry
If he had responded "fully and honestly" to investigators, one of his outlets might have been traced more quickly and it was possible that the supply of cold meats which claimed six of the lives could have been prevented.

Key failings

The report said there was inadequate training of staff at Barr's shop in Caledonian Road, Wishaw, implicated in the outbreak. It identified five key failures:

  • failure to use temperature probes for cooking raw meat
  • failure to draw up cleaning schedules to reduce the risk of contamination at the premises
  • failure to separate completely within the premises processes relating to raw meat and cooked meat
  • failure to provide separate knives and equipment for each of the separate processes
  • failure to provide clear management structures and "adequate supervision" to enforce safety measures

Civil claims

The Sheriff accepted the environmental health officers (EHOs) did not get full details from Mr Barr, but even when they did, the authorities were slow to respond, he said.

[ image: E. coli 0157 is a killer]
E. coli 0157 is a killer
Urgent recommendations on the handling of meat and the dangers of E. coli 0157 bacteria were put forward after a different inquiry under Professor Hugh Pennington.

However, the Sheriff suggested it may now be time for all cooked meats to be produced in dedicated licensed premises because of the scale of risks involved.

The professor said of the Sheriff's findings: "It comes as no great surprise that the Sheriff has come to the conclusions he has done given the conditions in Mr Barr's shop.

"It is equally of no surprise that EHOs have also come in for criticism."

Professor Pennington said food safety standards had improved since the outbreak, but practices had to be improved still further.

Civil action

Mr Barr has already faced criminal proceedings. He was cleared by a court of recklessly supplying contaminated meat.

Phil Taylor hears the reaction of relatives
Paul Santoni, the solicitor acting for many of the victims, said Mr Barr and the local council may now be sued.

Mr Santoni, who has already settled about 60 cases relating to the outbreak, has another 60 still to settle

"Should liability continue to be denied, we will pursue proceedings against Barrs and possibly North Lanarkshire Council," he said.

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