A number of serious questions demand answers about the manner in which environmental health officers and the Eastern Health Board dealt with the salmonella outbreak which resulted from the sale of contaminated food in a butcher's and delicatessen shop in Dundrum in my constituency. The Minister for Health and Children should inquire into why it took almost a full week from the date samples were taken from the shop for those samples to be tested and analysed and the results obtained to confirm that products sold in that shop were responsible for customers contracting salmonella. Having taken samples from the shop on 20 March, the health board should, within 48 hours, have known whether the products sold by the shop were definitely responsible for the outbreak that occurred. It should not have taken from 20 March until 27 March for this to be confirmed.
An explanation should also be sought as to why no public warning or alert was issued to inform the general public of the possible dangers to ensure that any product purchased from this shop that had not yet been consumed was disposed of. The shop closed on 27 March. No public announcement of any nature was made by the health board until around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, 31 March.
The primary duty of the health board in such circumstances is to the consumer. It is scandalous that while the health board dithered and failed to issue any public alert we now know that a further 26 people contracted salmonella. That is not the final number and it may emerge in the coming days that a large number of people who reside in or visit my constituency of Dublin South and shop in the Dundrum area have been so affected. It is essential to ensure that if at any future date a similar outbreak occurs, the results of testing are obtained more speedily and, where such results prove positive, a public warning is immediately issued. Consumers are entitled to this type of protection.
While the Minister for Health and Children cannot be held responsible for the failures of the Eastern Health Board, he does have a duty to ensure that the health board properly fulfils its functions. He also has a duty to give greater priority to the publication and processing through this House of a food safety and quality authority Bill than has been given by the Government to this measure to date.
A further essential public interest issue that must be addressed concerns the capacity of the State laboratories, currently serving the Eastern Health Board, to monitor high risk food outlets that operate within the board area and to undertake essential testing. It is my information that in the whole of the Eastern Health Board area there are, what can be described as, 4,367 premises regarded as high risk which supply food products. Microbiological testing is funded through the Department of Health and Children and I am advised that the laboratories which serve the Eastern Health Board area are provided only with sufficient funding annually to take and test a maximum 1,050 microbiological samples annually. To ensure food safety and consumer protection, it is essential that at least one sample is taken from every high risk outlet annually within the health board area and within each other health board area similar samples should be taken from such outlets for testing and health monitoring purposes. That requires a quadrupling of the capacity to test samples taken and a quadrupling of the current funding provided to the laboratories, which is grossly deficient. This is an issue for which the Minister is directly responsible and any inquiry conducted into the events concerning the salmonella outbreak in Dundrum should also consider whether the delay in obtaining the testing results derives from the State's laboratories lacking the capacity to speedily conduct the testing and analysis required.
Ordinary people who shop in Dundrum are incredulous that it took so long for the health board to issue a public health warning. Not only my constituents but the entire country is entitled to an assurance from the Minister that immediate action will be taken to ensure that any future incidence of food contamination produces a speedier and more consumer orientated response. I am seeking an inquiry within the Department, not a tribunal or elaborate inquiry mechanism. Lessons must be learned from the manner in which the health board dealt with this issue and the delay on its part in issuing the public alert that was so badly needed at an earlier stage.