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UK food and beverage firms must ensure protection against E. coli outbreak

The current UK E. coli outbreak provides a real-world example of why it is important for businesses in the food and beverage industry to have robust measures in place to protect against, avoid and properly manage incidents, an expert has said.

UK health experts have identified a significant E. coli outbreak, with a total of 113 reported cases since 25 May. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said that the outbreak is likely tied to a single contaminated food product distributed nationally.

Leo Parkington, contract law expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “Incidents such as this can be extremely damaging to the reputation of a business in the food and beverage industry. Businesses involved in the manufacture or supply of food and beverages should conduct appropriate due diligence on their supply chain to ensure food safety and hygiene standards are met.”

E. coli can survive refrigeration and freezing and has been shown to be tolerant of acid, salt and dry conditions. The bacteria may be present in food products such as raw meat and raw vegetables. Transfer of E. coli to other food products which are ready-to-eat can cause serious illness and even death.

The pursuit of a high level of protection of human life and health is one of the fundamental objectives of food law. Achieving food safety is a result of several factors including legislation which lays down the minimum hygiene requirements and traceability requirements; food safety programmes and procedures based on the hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) principles; and regulatory controls to check food businesses operators’ compliance.  In short, businesses are legally required to implement and maintain food safety procedures, with risk of legal action following non-compliance.

Zoe Betts, food safety law expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “The measures required to control cross-contamination will vary between businesses and should be proportionate to the risk posed. It follows that food business operators must undertake a suitable risk assessment of the activities within the business likely to cause food to be contaminated and put into place appropriate steps to control these activities to ensure food safety.”

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued guidance (51 pages / 3.6 MB) for local authorities and all types of businesses that handle both raw and ready-to-eat food. Amongst other things it states that businesses must ensure that work areas, surfaces and equipment used for raw and ready-to-eat food are adequately separated. Where physical separation is not possible, strict cleaning and disinfecting regimes need to be followed between uses.

Local authorities are responsible for enforcing food hygiene laws and authorised enforcement officers have the right to enter and inspect food premises at any reasonable time. Visits do not require an appointment and officers often turn up without notice.

Businesses will be assessed for any potential hazards and to ensure general compliance with the law. Officers also have a wide range of powers including the ability to take samples and photographs, inspect records, and to serve a hygiene improvement notice or even an emergency prohibition notice to forbid the use of the premises or equipment if there is an imminent health risk. Officers can also instigate a prosecution where evidence of serious breaches has been identified.

If a food business operator becomes aware of a contamination issue, it must take immediate action to protect consumers. Production of any ready-to-eat products that may have been contaminated must cease immediately and affected products must be removed while the cause is investigated. It may be subsequently necessary to dispose of the products, re-cook items at appropriately high temperatures, or withdraw and recall products that have left the food business operator’s control. The local authority and FSA should be notified of any such withdrawals and recalls.

“Prompt corrective action will invariably play out better for the business in the long run rather than trying to conceal the issue or underplay its true seriousness,” said Betts.

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