Local councils criticised in E.coli outbreak hearing

The public inquiry into the E coli outbreak in South Wales heard yesterday concerns were being raised about the safety of meat supplied by the butcher as early as 1996.

The public inquiry into the E coli outbreak in South Wales heard yesterday concerns were being raised about the safety of meat supplied by the butcher at the heart of 2005's deadly outbreak as early as 1996.

There were details of a catalogue of complaints from schools about the supply of cooked meats from butcher William Tudor.

In addition a succession of official inspection reports had raised concerns about the risk of cross-contamination at John Tudor & Son's premises in Bridgend Industrial Estate.

But the business, which was confirmed as the sole source of the 2005 South Wales Valleys E.coli O157 outbreak, was allowed to continue to trade and was twice awarded a £500,000 council contract to supply schools in Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taf (RCT) and Bridgend with meat.

Tudor was even given his butcher's licence just a month before the outbreak, despite serious "historic" food safety and hygiene concerns.

But those same food safety and hygiene concerns were sufficient to have the business shut down on September 19, 2005, a few days after the E.coli O157 outbreak was declared.

More than 150 people - mostly children - fell ill during Wales' worst E.coli outbreak and a five-year old boy died in October 2005 after eating infected meat at school.

James Eadie, the public inquiry's lead counsel, told yesterday's hearing that John Tudor & Son had supplied meat to schools across Mid Glamorgan prior to local government reorganisation - the company also supplied care homes, canteens and members of the public. Between 1996 and 1998 it supplied meat to schools in Bridgend, Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil and RCT. Caerphilly alone received some 900kg of cooked meats a week.

But between September 1996 and October 1998 there were 40 complaints from schools in Caerphilly about the meat, including issues about under-cooked meat, blood on the outside of bags, "foreign bodies" in the meat, use-by dates and the temperature of meat on delivery.

Similar concerns about the quality of turkey, under-cooked pork and "totally unacceptable" use-by dates were raised when John Tudor & Son was awarded a £500,000-a-year contract in 1998 to supply Bridgend, Merthyr and RCT schools. Caerphilly opted to choose an alternative supplier.

When the contract was put out for re-tender in 2002, Caerphilly again chose to stay with an alternative supplier. An internal council email obtained by the inquiry team said, "Apparently he [Tudor] is still supplying inferior products in other areas."

A letter from David Dier, Merthyr Tydfil's principal environment health officer, in February 2002 also highlighted serious concerns about Tudor's practices.

It said, "The fact this supplier seems willing to tell untruths to enforcement officers and avoid traceability issues and correct labelling of high-risk foods, gives me great concerns."

But the three councils opted to remain with Tudor because, according to official documents, it was "the lowest overall offer". Caerphilly schools used John Tudor & Son from the beginning of 2005.

Eadie said: "We have some evidence of significant complaints against [John Tudor & Son] and their performance.

"We need to explore the significance of these complaints - were they the sort of thing seen in every contract or were they more significant than that?"

Concerns about the risk of cross-contamination and lack of basic hygiene at John Tudor & Son's premises were raised by Bridgend Council's environmental health officer Angela Coles during a routine inspection in January 2005 - more than six months before the outbreak. She specifically highlighted the fact that one vacuum packing machine was used for both cooked and raw meats. Even though this issue was again raised as part of the licence process in August 2005, it did not prevent Tudor from being reissued with his butcher's licence.

But by September 19, 2005, after the outbreak had been declared amid concerns that John Tudor & Son was the source of the outbreak, the single vac-packing machine was considered to present an "immediate risk to public health" and an emergency prohibition notice, shutting down production, was issued.

A day later a further emergency prohibition notice was issued shutting down the business as "dead flies, insects" and "meat slicers dirty with food debris" were found.

Eadie said, "When the inspectors go in when the trouble has blown up and the outbreak has happened they do an inspection and they discover a series of problems, some of which are similar problems and were identified in Angela Coles' records.

"The reaction of the authorities is not to say, 'Carry on and try and do a bit better,' but to effectively shut the business down."

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