Professor Hugh Pennington has become unstuck in time.
More like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, than Billy Pilgrim
In November 1996, over 400 fell ill and 21 were killed in Scotland by E. coli O157:H7 found in deli meats produced by family butchers John Barr & Son. The Butcher of Scotland, who had been in business for 28 years and who was previously awarded the title of Scottish Butcher of the Year, was using the same knives to handle raw and cooked meat. That's a food safety no-no.
In a 1997 inquiry, Prof. Pennington recommended, among other things, the physical separation, within premises and butcher shops, of raw and cooked meat products using separate counters, equipment and staff.
In the past two weeks, Prof. Pennington has heard in a new inquiry how John Tudor and Son, the Butcher of Wales, used the same machine to vacuum package both raw and cooked meats, leading to an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak beginning in Sept. 2005, which sickened some150 children in 44 schools in southern Wales and killed five-year-old Mason Jones.
How can the good professor awaken from this recurring national nightmare?
The inquiry into the 2005 outbreak, which began in Feb. 2008, is again chaired by Prof. Pennington and has again heard testimony highlighting gross managerial failures and shocking levels of complacency.
So far, the Butcher of Wales has been shown to have:
• encouraged staff suffering from stomach bugs and diarrhea to continue preparing meat for school dinners;
• known of cross-contamination between raw and cooked meats, but did nothing to prevent it;
• used the same packing in which raw meat had been delivered to subsequently store cooked product;
• operated a processing facility that contained a filthy meat slicer, cluttered and dirty chopping areas, and meat more than two years out of date piled in a freezer;
• a cleaning schedule at the factory that one expert called "a joke;"
• falsified crucial health and safety documents and lied about receiving hygiene awards; and,
• supplied schools with meat that was green, smelly and undercooked.
Professor Chris Griffith, head of the food research and consultancy unit at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, told the inquiry the culture at the premises was “dominated by saving money.”
This would explain why Tudor retained his contract to supply schools: because he was the cheapest.
So who allowed Tudor to operate under such conditions?
(This is why I get substantially nervous when any food producer, such as California lettuce and spinach growers, says they meet inspection standards.)
Prof. Pennington has heard that Tudor and Son was visited several times in the months leading up to the Sept. 2005 outbreak, that inspectors knew there was only one vac-pac machine being used for both cooked and raw meats but, despite Pennington's 1997 recommendation, inspectors decided the business did not pose "an imminent risk" to human health.
A retired senior Food Standards Agency official, who now works as a freelance food safety consultant, told the inquiry that the use of a single vac-pak for both raw and cooked meat was “like playing Russian Roulette."
The official also chided inspectors for failing to note deficiencies in Tudor's written food safety plan and stated, rather bluntly, "There was a failure in the series of inspections to identify poor hygiene and working practices and a failure to take action."
The inspectors also took on "face value" explanations offered by Tudor and his staff for various food safety failures.
Buyers with the school boards were equally eager to look the other way to save a pound. One supervisor told the inquiry, “You have to have faith in people. You don’t expect them to make up stories about meat.”
Except that inspection and regulatory regimes for meat were created in Southern France in the 12th century precisely because people do make up stories about meat. Europe has almost 1,000 years of regulatory experience with shoddy food suppliers; that experience was not applied in southern Wales in 2005. As a result, 5-year-old Mason Jones died a painful and unnecessary death. Dozens of kids were hospitalized and will suffer life-long effects.
The official purpose of the inquiry is to provide recommendations designed to prevent a similar outbreak happening again.
As Prof. Pennington knows, that was supposed to happen in 1997.