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Caterer that caused E. coli outbreak escapes prosecution

Tom Wall09/07/2014 - 13:00

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The outbreak at the SSE Hydro made 22 people ill
The outbreak at the SSE Hydro made 22 people ill

Food safety experts have criticised a decision by Glasgow City Council not to prosecute a catering firm that caused an E. coli outbreak at a council-owned venue due to host this month’s Commonwealth Games.

The official NHS report into the outbreak says errors in the cooking process by Levy Restaurants, part of the Compass Group, is likely to have led to fans attending a Top Gear Live event being served undercooked burgers in January.

The outbreak at the SSE Hydro conference centre, which will host the gymnastics, boxing and netball finals, made 22 people ill from E. coli, with three hospitalised.

‘Descriptive evidence gathered by EHOs strongly suggests the possibility of processing errors leading to undercooking as well as the potential for cross contamination in the preparation and serving of the beef burger products,’ it states.

EHOs found the chefs were searing the burgers first in a central kitchen before cooking them in outlets throughout the venue, including the Big Grill. The report says this process, which was not recorded in the firm’s hazard analysis and critical control points (Haccp) system, increased the risk of mistakes, as the burgers were seared inconsistently, with some still pink on the outside.

‘The two-stage process used by Levy Restaurants/Compass in the preparation of the beef burgers is not inherently dangerous if undertaken meticulously; however, it is a process which increased the potential for inadequate cooking and hence exposure to E coli O157/VTEC,’ it states.

The report, which was published last week, concludes that that the firm’s Haccp system was inadequate, core temperatures of the burgers were not monitored properly and utensils for read-to-eat and raw food were not separated.

‘Although this was a sizeable outbreak of E. coli O157/VTEC, it is fortunate that the number of individuals affected was not larger given the nature of the venue,’ it states.

Glasgow City Council told EHN this week it would not be prosecuting Levy Restaurants for the outbreak.

A council spokesperson said: ‘A detailed report has been published clearly stating the hypothesis for the cause of the outbreak. The food business operator, Compass, co-operated fully with our investigations from the start and made immediate changes on request.’

However David Horrocks, an environmental health consultant and expert witness who has given evidence in public inquires and criminal cases, told EHN that he would of have expected Glasgow to prosecute given the failures identified by the outbreak report.

‘Under the circumstances, where this epidemiological report concludes that the food poisoning outbreak was likely to have been caused by failures in the Haccp system, exacerbated by cross-contamination risks and inadequate cleaning/disinfection methods, one would expect criminal proceedings to be instituted against the caterers since both evidential and public interest tests would have been clearly satisfied,’ he said.

He added that the outbreak could easily haven been much more serious.

‘It was fortunate that the outbreak was relatively small and that the illnesses suffered were not more catastrophic, i.e. no children under five years of age were involved, hence no cases of Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome. It might, so easily, have been a lot more serious,’ he said.

Prof Hugh Pennington, who chaired a public inquiry into the 1996 E. coli outbreak in Wishaw, Lanarkshire which claimed 20 lives, told EHN that it was ‘very surprised’ that the council had decided not to prosecute Compass Group.

‘Whatever protocol they had for cooking burgers to the correct temperature either it wasn’t adequate or wasn’t being followed,’ he said.

He said it was not good enough to claim Compass Group had agreed to change it processes following the outbreak report.

‘It like having a speeding offence and saying “I’m not going to speed again so let me off”,’ he remarked. ‘Here is a company that poisoned people and they have to pay a price by appearing in court. It is as simple as that.’

He added that was he also surprised that the council had not taken action to reassure the public ahead the Commonwealth Games.

‘I’m very surprised considering the Commonwealth Games is on and this is going to be a central venue that this rigorous action hasn’t been taken to reassure the public,’ he said.

The SSE Hydro, which is owned by the council, will be one of the main venues for the Commonwealth Games.

The Compass Group said Levy Restaurants took food hygiene very seriously and it has robust systems and processes in place to ensure it maintained the highest standards.

‘We worked with the local EHO throughout its investigation, and carried out our own internal review. Both the EHO and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde are fully satisfied with the processes and procedures in place and we’ve made a small number of changes to our monitoring processes to further improve our high standards,’ said a spokesperson.

SECC, which runs the SSE Hydro, said Compass had co-operated fully with the investigation.

‘Our catering partners co-operated fully with NHS Greater Glasgow during the investigation. The EHO is fully satisfied with the processes and standard procedures in place at our venue and we wish to assure the public that at this time we have no concerns in relation to catering for our patrons or staff,’ said a spokesperson.

Compass has since changed the two-step cooking process and introduced a revised cleaning programme.


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