Mixed reaction from industry after agency issues statement on earlier E. coli outbreak

A public statement released by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) on a UK E. coli outbreak earlier this year has provoked a mixed reaction in the fresh produce industry.

The FSA statement, which mentions leeks and potatoes is expected to have a damaging effect for UK-grown produce - image: HW
The FSA statement, which mentions leeks and potatoes is expected to have a damaging effect for UK-grown produce - image: HW

 

The statement, issued with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) at the end of last week, talked of a "significant association" between the E. coli outbreak - unrelated to those in Germany and France this summer - and soil on raw, loose leeks and potatoes.

Some industry members fear its release could damage the fresh produce sector, hitting consumer confidence in UK-grown vegetables in the same manner in which salad sales suffered earlier this year during the German E. coli outbreak. But others backed the HPA's decision to reiterate the importance of safe food preparation.

The exact source of the UK's unusual strain of E. coli 0157, which occurred from December 2010 until the beginning of July, has not been traced. The outbreak infected 250 people. Most cases were mild but one patient with underlying health problems died.

The link to fresh vegetables was made by statistical analysis of 30 of a total of 250 reported cases and based on people recalling what they ate.

The Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) raised concerns with the HPA, the FSA and Defra about issuing a health statement before the HPA's final report on the outbreak was made available.

However, the authorities went ahead and published the statement, which has since been widely reported in the national press.

FPC chief executive Nigel Jenney said: "This decision to make a public statement without sharing their full findings with the industry and the public smacks of a complete disregard of consequences on the industry and consumer confidence."

The FPC also expressed concern that the fresh produce industry was not informed of the potential link to fresh vegetables until 20 July, even though the HPA advised the FSA in June.

Jenney said: "It is vital that UK authorities share information with us much sooner and that they understand more about industry processes as part of any thorough investigation before pointing the finger at certain sectors."

Speaking on behalf of the Leek Growers Association, NFU horticulture adviser Chris Hartfield said: "The main thing is that they have consulted us. In the wake of the German outbreak there was a lot of concern that it could cause another scare.

"But we've been working with the FSA and the HPA for three months and all parties are aware that we don't want this. It would have been irresponsible to ignore this link to soil on loose leeks and potatoes."

Hatfield added that the industry would have preferred it if the HPA had not specifically mentioned leeks and potatoes.

"This confuses things. Why mention leeks and potatoes and not mention any specific advice for these products?" he asked. However, he said the authorities' liaison with the industry, including the time it was informed of the link to vegetables, was fair.

Potato Council head of marketing and corporate affairs Caroline Evans added: "The Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board has worked with the HPA and the FSA to provide as much information as possible about good practices already used in the industry in supplying safe products to consumers, most under farm assurance.

"The outbreak is now closed by the HPA and the advice is that provided potatoes and leeks are washed clean, they are safe to eat.

"Importantly, the message we need to give to consumers is that potatoes and leeks are safe to enjoy. We would advise everyone to follow the normal good hygiene procedures when preparing them."

Health Protection Agency - Evidence study

The Health Protection Agency said there was no evidence to suggest that any particular retail source or variety was responsible for people falling ill.

"It appears to have been caused by traces of soil carrying the E. coli 0157 present on the vegetables," it added.

"Now that we have established a statistically significant association with the handling of certain loose vegetables, it warrants us sharing these findings with the public to enable them to take the necessary steps to minimise their risk of food poisoning."


Growers respond to announcement

Lincolnshire-based leek and potato grower Mark Tinsley echoed the Fresh Produce Consortium's concerns over the Health Protection Agency statement on the outbreak. "Many in the industry are highly upset that it made this announcement," he said.

"The indication was far from a proven case but the fact that leeks and potatoes are mentioned is just going to create problems for us. I cannot see why leeks would be different to any other vegetables. This is the last thing that the industry needs."

The statement could damage consumer confidence if it is not accurately reported, Tinsley warned. "People don't understand the details. It needs to be thoroughly researched.

"The amount of leeks and potatoes sold with soil on them to the main market is infinitely small. We are talking about local shops," he pointed out.

"If they feel that there's a statistically significant situation, they should look further into that and analyse soils to prove that potentially risky organisms are in them. Until the case is proven they should not come out with such statements."

Leek grower Mervyn Casey added: "It could be damaging but what they have said about washing vegetables is common sense. The crops, after all, are grown in soil, not a laboratory."


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