E. coli crackdown threatens future of artisan foods

Heading for a meeting with his lawyer, Humphrey Errington sounds like a man at the end of his tether. The artisan cheesemaker '“ considered a pioneer in his field '“ stands to lose his business after Food Standards Scotland (FSS) said a batch of his Dunsyre Blue cheese was linked to an '¨E. coli outbreak which claimed the life of a toddler and put 13 others in hospital.

Humphrey Errington stands to lose his business. Picture: Allan Milligan
Humphrey Errington stands to lose his business. Picture: Allan Milligan

Last week, after the same strain of the bacteria was found in two more children who had fallen ill in Tayside, the government agency ordered environmental health officers to seize all of his cheeses, which are made with unpasteurised milk.

Errington and others, including esteemed professor of bacteriology Hugh Pennington, believe the evidence suggesting his produce is to blame is inconclusive and that the FSS has been heavy-handed. But, the FSS says, there is no right of appeal; if Errington wants to challenge its decision, his only option is to seek a judicial review.

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“We are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of cheese they want to destroy,” Errington says. “And there seems to be very little we can do about it because of the way the FSS is set up. That’s why I’m seeing my lawyer.”

Errington’s livelihood is at stake, but he is not the only one worried by the FSS’s ban; many of those within the food industry fear it is indicative of a wider distrust of unprocessed fare.

More than a dozen Scottish cheesemakers – including Isle of Mull and Cambus O’May – use unpasteurised milk, and have been left wondering whether they will be the next to be targeted. That’s on top of the fear sparked by all food crises: that consumer confidence will dip and sales will drop.

“There is huge support for the Erringtons in the artisan food sector in Scotland,” says investigative food writer Joanna Blythman. “Most producers are terrified of FSS because they feel it’s an agency that can crush you and doesn’t ever seem to be held to account,”

Blythman fears the FSS’s negativity towards homemade produce is already impacting on growth. “What worries me is that Scotland’s artisan food scene hasn’t blossomed as well as it should have,” she says. “Although we have made some progress, we are behind the English and the Irish.

“Scotland has a fear of real food; there is a sense that the only safe food is something you buy from the supermarket, shrink-wrapped, and anything artisan is suspect.

“It’s cultural, and FSS is the embodiment of that attitude. If they are not careful, they will drive artisan businesses out of the country.”

This is not the first time E. coli has cast a shadow over Scotland. Back in 1996, 21 people died after eating meat supplied by Wishaw butcher John Barr, whose firm was later fined £2,250.

The most recent outbreak began in July, when 20 people fell ill, with 11 requiring hospital treatment. Tragically, a three-year-old girl from Dumbarton who contracted E. coli at that time died earlier this month. An investigation into her death is being carried out by the procurator fiscal.

When the current outbreak began, a multi-agency Incident Management Team (IMT), involving FSS and Health Protection Scotland (HPS), was set up. It concluded on “epidemiological evidence” – gathered, it is understood, through food questionnaires – that Dunsyre Blue cheese was the most likely cause.

Errington disputed the FSS findings; he pointed out that while his cheese was on sale for nine weeks, all those affected had fallen ill between 1 July and 15 July, suggesting the real cause was something with a shorter shelf life. But two batches of Dunsyre Blue were voluntarily withdrawn and the IMT stood down.

Last week, two more cases involving the same strain of E. coli were discovered at a playgroup in Carnoustie; the playgroup was closed and the IMT was reconvened. On Wednesday, the FSS issued a Food Alert for Action (FAFA) imposing a blanket ban on all five Errington cheeses – Dunsyre Blue, Lanark Blue, Lanark White, Maisie’s Kebbuck and Cora Linn – though there appears to be no issue with Maisie’s Kebbuck or Cora Linn.

Though no-one disputes the severity of the outbreak – or its impact on those involved – there is a lingering unease over the way the crisis has been handled, with many convinced Errington has been unjustly punished.

The fact the cheesemaker once successfully challenged Clydesdale Council’s claim a batch of his Lanark Blue cheese was “unfit for human consumption” has led to mutterings about old scores being settled. This speculation has been fuelled by the knowledge that Dr Syed Ahmed – a consultant in public medicine at Lanarkshire Health Board, who was criticised by the sheriff in the 1995 case – is now clinical director of HPS and a member of the IMT. However sources at HPS are quick to point out that, as one of a large team chaired by Dr Alison Smith-Palmer, Ahmed would be in no position to exert influence on the decision-making process.

Errington himself believes the FSS is driven by “malicious prejudice” against cheese made with unpasteurised milk.

Scotland is the only country in the UK where it is illegal to sell and distribute raw milk, but it is legal to use it in cheese production. Earlier this year, the American Food and Drug Administration – which in the past banned Roquefort and other raw milk cheeses – tested 1,600 samples and found “the prevalences of salmonella and pathogenic shiga toxin- producing E. Coli [were] relatively low and similar to the contamination rates in many other foods.”

In a statement issued after the blanket ban was issued, the FSS claimed 19 of the 22 people affected had consumed blue cheese, with 15 of them confirming the type of cheese as Dunsyre Blue.

They said samples of Dunsyre Blue and Lanark White had tested “presumptive positive” for shiga toxin-producing E. coli. Though E. coli 0157 and non-0157 E. coli was detected in one sample of Lanark White cheese, it was not shown to contain the stx genes found in the people who had fallen ill. However a food examiner declared it was still “potentially injurious to health and/or unfit for human consumption”.

Yet Errington and his daughter, Selina Cairns, who, together with her husband Andrew, now run the dairy farm on the edge of the Pentland Hills – claim multiple samples sent to labs in the UK and Europe have found no trace of E. coli and insist inspectors who turned up to scrutinise the operation last week gave it a clean bill of health.

Speaking before the release of the statement, Pennington – who chaired a public inquiry into an outbreak in Wales – was critical of the way information had been released “in dribs and drabs”.

“There are two separate issues here,” he said. “One is the Dunsyre Blue linked to the outbreak in July. That’s down to epidemiological evidence that some people that ate it fell ill – although some people who didn’t eat it also fell ill, so the jury is out on that. If E. coli in that cheese was the cause of the outbreak – well, those batches were withdrawn, so, in a sense, that was the end of the episode.

“In some of the other batches, the FSS has found genes that might be associated with E. coli 0157, but that’s not sufficient evidence to say the bug is there. To demonstrate that you would have to grow it in the lab and then test it to find out if it is dangerous.”

Pennington says in the Wishaw case, there was not a scintilla of doubt Barr’s butcher’s was the source of the outbreak or that there were problems with the way the meat was stored and handled.

“It is not the same in this case – [the cheesemakers] haven’t been closed down on the basis they are doing anything wrong in terms of food safety law – so there’s something a little bit more subtle going on.”

Blythman says the way the investigation has been handled raises questions about the agency’s power and its accountability. “It makes you ask: who polices the food police?” she says. “It is right the agency has strong powers to protect public health, but extraordinary power has to be accompanied by responsibility and transparency. “

Wendy Barrie, founder of the Scottish Cheese Trail, a website which maps and promotes some of the country’s artisanal cheesemakers, is equally disconcerted. “The evidence seems so unstructured and unclear, I feel he has been sentenced without a fair trial,” she says.

Within the artisan cheesemaking community in Scotland, Errington is regarded with great respect. In the late 1980s he blazed a trail, creating the first new Scottish blue cheese for centuries with unpasteurised milk from his flock of Lacaune ewes at his farm in Carnwath, South Lanarkshire.

But – as Lanark Blue began to make its way on to gourmet cheeseboards – it came under the scrutiny of local environmental health officers who wanted Errington to play “safer” and use pasteurised milk.

In 1995, Clydesdale Council claimed to have found listeria monocytogenes in a batch of Lanark Blue and ordered the recall of all produce. Defiant, Errington had his own tests done; most found no listeria, while a handful found minute amounts of a non-dangerous strain. He took the council to court and won. The case dragged on for over a year, and pushed him to the edge of bankruptcy. “Humphrey Errington is a pioneer and a highly intelligent and passionate man – I have a huge respect for the whole family,” Barrie says. “He is the last person I would expect to be involved in something like this,” adds Blythman.

When it comes to the consumption of raw milk, opinion is divided. Some health experts believe it harbours micro-organisms which can pose a serious health risk. But the pro-raw milk lobby argues it tastes better and retains nutrients lost in the pasteurisation process.

Blythman would like to be able to buy raw milk, but says, even if you are against it, there is objectively less risk from a cheese because is matured and has high salt levels which inhibit bacteria.

Although the FSS has never pushed for a ban on raw milk cheese, those involved in the artisan food sector believe it puts obstacles in the path of those who want to produce it.

Craigie’s Farm, Deli and Café in South Queensferry is one of many outlets which has been forced to remove Errington’s cheese from sale despite having experienced no negative feedback from customers.

Owner John Sinclair believes those who make and sell raw milk cheeses in Scotland are subject to tighter restrictions than their counterparts south of the border, and says the way the guidelines are interpreted seems to vary from place to place.

“The authorities here do seem to have a problem with raw milk cheeses – and the different ways different councils interpret regulations is a big hindrance,” he says.

“When we set up our cheese counter, Edinburgh Council wanted us to treat pasteurised and unpasteurised cheeses the same way as you treat raw meat and cooked meat. They wanted a clear division in the counter, they wanted separate cutting equipment which we do anyway, and they wanted hand-washing between handling raw and non-raw.

“So we went to our ‘primary authority’ and they said that was taking it too far.

“South of the border you can display cheese in ambient situations. If you go to the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham they have thousands of cheeses sitting out in an ambient situation overnight. The next day, consumers can go in and eat the cheese, whereas north of the border that would be a no-no.”

Blythman says other countries value artisan cheesemakers. “In Ireland if you want to produce raw milk cheese, you will get grants, you will be asked to go to exhibitions,” she says. “But here, there’s an assumption it is the cause of food poisoning.

“Meanwhile [the authorities] are ignoring the most common cause of food poisoning – which is industrial food production.”

Pennington concedes one interpretation of what has happened is that FSS has an issue with raw milk cheese, but says, if it wants it banned, they should press for legislation to be brought through parliament.

As for Errington, he is right back where he was in the 1990s: facing a court case and possible bankruptcy. This time round – though – he faces losing a business he has spent 30 years building and which paved the way for other artisanal cheesemakers.