How can small companies defend themselves against accusations levelled by food safety agencies? Look at Errington Cheese in Lanarkshire. Its raw milk cheese was deemed by Food Standards Scotland (FSS), on the basis of highly debatable epidemiological associations, to be the ‘most likely’ cause of an e.coli outbreak in 2016, which tragically claimed the life of a three-year-old child.
What a horrible thing to be charged with, every food producer’s worst nightmare. The company’s production was more or less shut down, most of its staff had to be laid off, sales plummeted. Yet it had no official means to clear its name. No criminal prosecution was led against Errington Cheese because prosecutors could find no evidence to support one.
The Errington family hoped for a fatal accident enquiry where South Lanarkshire Council (SLC), proxy of FSS, would have to disclose the detail of its supposedly incriminatory evidence. Guess what? The authorities decided not to hold one.
Now the Erringtons have a victory of sorts. They brought a civil action against SLC, and the sheriff cleared them of breaching food safety laws, rejecting the council’s application to destroy their entire stock of cheese. Out of 500 batches of cheese tested, he found that only four batches were potentially unfit for human consumption because obscure strains of e.coli were isolated from them in ‘vanishingly small’ quantities, using a method never before used to measure food safety: whole genome sequencing. But he concluded that these batches were not likely to be injurious to health because they lacked the necessary virulence factors.
To date this court case has cost the Erringtons £350,000. When they ran out of money, they represented themselves in court. SLC has spent around £550,000 of its ratepayers’ money on it. Meanwhile, small food companies throughout the UK and Ireland watch dismayed from the sidelines with ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ sentiment.
If this novel food risk assessment method, which seems to demand nothing less than total sterility, were applied across the food chain, everything from salad leaves to strawberries would be deemed unsafe. Yet when the food safety authorities come knocking, a fair and affordable appeals process for the accused is conspicuous by its absence.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of Swallow This