Mystery E.coli outbreak that struck down 113 and hospitalised 37 was likely caused by ‘ready to eat’ item with dairy element, expert says


The mystery food behind an outbreak of E.coli is more likely to be a ‘ready to eat’ item rather than something which is cooked, a top scientist has suggested.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, said historically, there have been a large range of foods associated with the rare Shiga toxigenic (STEC) bug.

But he believes it is ‘very likely’ to be a ‘ready-to-eat product possibly with a dairy origin’.

Health officials are racing to identify the source of the STEC infection which has struck down 113 people, mostly young adults, between May 25 and June 4, with more cases expected.

At least 37 people have required hospital treatment.

The mystery food behind an outbreak of E.coli is more likely to be a 'ready to eat' item rather than something which is cooked, a top scientist has suggested (stock image)

The mystery food behind an outbreak of E.coli is more likely to be a ‘ready to eat’ item rather than something which is cooked, a top scientist has suggested (stock image)

Of the 113 cases – which range in age from two to 79 – 81 were in England, 18 in Wales and 13 in Scotland. There has been one case recorded in Northern Ireland, but officials think the person was infected in England.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said it believes the wave of cases stem from a ‘nationally distributed food item’ or ‘multiple food items’.

Professor Pennington told the Mail on Sunday: ‘We’ve had STEC outbreaks with food that is going to be cooked, the traditional kinds were meat products, mince and burgers and so on, and cooking kills the bug stone dead.

‘You’d have to expect if it was a food that’s going to be made safe by cooking, all the people who’ve fallen ill haven’t been cooking their food properly.’

He said this was ‘very unlikely’ and as a result undercooked meats would ‘certainly not be top of my list’ of suspects, adding: ‘It would be much more likely to be foods that are not going to be cooked before they are consumed.

‘We’ve had outbreaks associated with the dairy products, for example.

‘Cheese is a classic, ice cream, we’ve had ice cream before. There’s a whole range, any dairy products, that are being processed.’

Asked what he thought the mystery food could be, he said: ‘I would be casting my net very widely because the trouble is, any food that is processed, could in theory be contaminated.

‘Now some products are higher on the list, like cheeses for example. One of the questions that I’m sure all the people were being asked is ‘have you eaten cheese made from unpasteurised milk?’

‘That would be one thing I would be looking at fairly high up on the list because we’ve had outbreaks of STEC associated with cheese from unpasteurised milk.’

Professor Pennington told the Mail on Sunday that cheese made with unpasteurised milk is high on his list of contaminated foods that may have caused the outbreak (stock image)

Professor Pennington told the Mail on Sunday that cheese made with unpasteurised milk is high on his list of contaminated foods that may have caused the outbreak (stock image)

Professor Pennington also stressed there are other non-dairy products which also ‘could be in the frame’.

He said identifying the mystery food can be ‘bloody difficult’ as officials will be heavily reliant on infected peoples’ memories of what they have eaten, which could have faded and therefore be inaccurate.

Officials, he said, would be doing ‘old fashioned detective work’ to identify the source, but that even if they do, there could be little evidence left if it is not evenly spread between batches or those contaminated parts have already been eaten.

To limit the risk of infection, people are being urged to regularly wash their hands, fruit and vegetables and cook food properly.

People with symptoms of the bug, including severe and sometimes bloody diarrhoea, stomach cramps, vomiting and fever, are advised to stay off work and school for at least 48 hours after symptoms stopped to avoid passing it on.

Those with diarrhoea and vomiting are urged not to prepare food for others.



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