By Sean Poulter
Last updated at 3:46 AM on 30th September 2011
One person died and about 250 fell ill after eating E.coli-contaminated food in an outbreak British officials covered up.
It is thought the food affected was leeks and potatoes and sold in British stores including the major supermarkets.
The outbreak – which British authorities deliberately kept secret until now – lasted about seven months and is thought to have been caused by soil carrying a potentially deadly strain of the E.coli bug on the outside of vegetables.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) and Food Standards Agency (FSA) said about 250 people in this country – two-thirds of them women – fell ill between December and July. Of these, 74 were so ill they had to be hospitalised. Forty per cent involved youngsters under 16.
Despite the number and range of cases – which occurred across the UK – officials chose to keep quiet about a food safety threat. Health authorities are now warning the public to wash all vegetables and fruit carefully before they are eaten.
A similar strain of E.coli was responsible for the outbreak in Germany earlier this year, which killed more than 60 and infected 3,000 more across Europe.
In the UK outbreak, four victims developed the extremely dangerous haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which can cause kidney failure. One patient, who was suffering underlying health problems, died.
Last night MPs and experts branded failure to inform the public at the time ‘a serious error of judgment’. One MP has called for an inquiry into the cover-up. The FSA and HPA say the delay was necessary as it took months to identify the most likely source.
Health authorities were handed a statistical analysis in June suggesting a link to leeks and potatoes.
Some of the people who fell ill bought vegetables from Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. It seems likely the suspect vegetables were grown in Britain, but this has not been proven.
Officials have failed to pinpoint vegetables and farms responsible. Leeks and potatoes are their best guess, however turnips could also be implicated. Of the 251 cases, 193 were in England, 44 in Scotland and 14 in Wales, while 69 per cent were women and girls. The HPA said: ‘This range of stores from which purchases of the implicated vegetables were made indicates a potentially wide distribution of contaminated vegetables through a number of supermarkets and other shops.’
E.coli is associated with animal and human faeces, which can get into water used to irrigate fields. Manure can be used as fertiliser.
Dr Bob Adak, a gastrointestinal disease expert at the HPA and head of the multi-agency Outbreak Control Team said: ‘In this outbreak, which is now over, the vegetables could have carried traces of contaminated soil.
‘It is possible people caught the infection from cross contamination in storage, inadequate washing of vegetables, insufficient hand washing or by failing to thoroughly clean kitchen equipment or surfaces.’
The bug involved was a strain called E.coli 0157, which is particularly virulent and has been involved in a number of fatal food poisoning outbreaks in the UK.
Tory MP Neil Parish, a member of the Commons environment food and rural affairs committee called for an inquiry, adding: ‘It is essential the public is given the right information about what is going on and what precautions need to be taken.’ Erik Millstone, Professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex, added: ‘This is a serious error of judgement. The FSA has a stated policy of putting the consumer first.’
The HPA said: ‘There was no evidence to suggest any particular retail source or variety of the produce was responsible for people becoming ill. Illness appears to have been caused by traces of soil carrying the E. coli O157 bacteria present on the vegetables.’
An FSA spokesman said: ‘We have not had the evidence to give consumers useful advice about the outbreak until now. We need to have robust evidence to make sure we don’t wrongly implicate particular food products.’
But Stephen Dorrell, Tory chairman of the commons health select committee, said: ‘For there to be an outbreak of E.coli that wasn’t reported is a straightforward issue of public accountability. This was information that the public had a right to know.’