E-coli butcher allowed to sell food for years before closing

A BUTCHER'S shop at the centre of one of Yorkshire's most serious food poisoning outbreaks was found to be "filthy" by inspectors two years before it was shut down, the Yorkshire Post can reveal.

About 60 people were struck down by E-coli 0157 – which can cause organ failure and death – during an outbreak in Leeds in 2006 that led to an investigation into Todd's Pork and Beef Butchers in Armley and its stall at Kirkgate Market.

The firm which ran the two outlets was fined 20,000 in January for four food hygiene breaches – but the Yorkshire Post can reveal that not a penny of that fine has been paid.

Now papers released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Todd's was warned several times about poor hygiene standards and practices.

Victims of the E-coli outbreak last night expressed anger at the revelations, but said they were not surprised that the fine has not been paid. When it was imposed, magistrates were told that it was unlikely the money would ever be paid as the company had ceased trading.

Environmental health officers who visited in September 2003 produced an extensive list of improvements needed to get a licence, but they say the improvements were "substantially met" and a licence issued.

However, a year later, in September 2004, officers found a catalogue of failings, including:

Filthy electrical switches in preparation rooms;

Accumulated food debris on a tiled floor;

Dirty door seals on a walk-in chiller;

Large amounts of food debris on the floor in the raw meat preparation area;

A dirty sausage fridge;

A dirty probe thermometer;

Built-up dirt on vacuum packer machine;

Rusty scales and flaking paint on a pie-making machine.

Parts of the premises were in a poor state, with flaking paint, missing ceiling tiles and a leaking handwash basin. Deficiencies were also found in training, procedures and food safety.

Leeds City Council said officers revisited the premises a month later and noted some improvements, but more were still needed. They were carried out and so the licence was renewed.

But an inspection report from December 2005 reveals three parts of the premises – door seals, a preparation room and some fans – were dirty and working practices were not consistent with hygiene rules.

Six months later, in July 2006, the poisoning outbreak occurred and council officers discovered shocking hygiene practices and filthy conditions had returned.

The council closed Todd's four days later and began collecting evidence for a prosecution.

Hilary Cobley, whose late husband Neil was struck down by poisoning as he was due to undergo chemotherapy, said the outbreak was "no accident", adding: "I don't think this happened overnight. When they shut the shop you could see the muck on the floor. It is a shame that they can't make them pay the fine."

A council spokesman said the problems identified before the E-coli outbreak did not represent an "imminent risk".

They insisted the inspection in December 2005, seven months before the outbreak, showed that improvements had been made and the business "showed a willingness to co-operate".

The council's powers to close premises required imminent risk – such as rodent infestation or the presence of sewage. "This was simply not the case at Todd's," the spokesman added.

"No imminent risk had been witnessed prior to the time of the outbreak. Subsequent circumstances at the firm allowed things to deteriorate quickly.

"We acted as soon as it became clear that the major E-coli outbreak centred on Todd's and will always take swift action where there is an imminent risk to public health.

"When initially inspected as part of the licensing of butcher's premises, Todd's were told they required significant improvement but there was NO imminent risk to public health and the improvements we asked for were generally met.

"The conclusions of the court case following the outbreak were very clear – conditions at Todd's had suddenly and rapidly declined. Key managers had been away at the time, and experienced staff had recently left. A consequence of this scenario was abnormal and high-risk practices."

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