Adjournment Debate. - Salmonella Outbreak.

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.

It is a matter of regret to me, as Minister of State with responsibility for food safety, that there should be any incidence of food borne disease such as that which occurred in south County Dublin.

It is incumbent on everyone who comes into contact with food to be aware of the importance of food hygiene and to invoke the highest standards at all times. This applies equally to those involved in the production and manufacture of food and food products, those involved in the sale of food and to the end user — the consumer. Cross-contamination such as that which appears to have occurred in this case should be, and is, preventable and it is important that we all play our part in ensuring that the food we eat is safe to eat.

My Department has been in close contact with the Eastern Health Board to establish the facts of this incident and the position is as follows. On l9 March last, the Eastern Health Board was notified of three cases of salmonella. Interviews with the patients concerned identified the premises of Midland Meats, Dundrum, Dublin 14, as a possible source of the infection. An Eastern Health Board environrnental health officer inspected the premises on 20 March and took five food samples for examination. The proprietor of the premises was informed by the environmental health officer of the situation and of the serious health implications of salmonella. Two of the five samples were subsequently confirmed as positive on 27 March.

Samples taken from Midland Meats on 20 March were sent to the microbiological laboratory in Cherry Orchard Hospital on the morning of 21 March, but were not dealt with until the morning of 23 March, apparently due to lack of staff. The Eastern Health Board has advised that the procedure used takes up to five days and the first results were not available until 27 March.

On 24 March environmental health officers made a second inspection of the premises and made detailed recommendations on the steps to be followed in relation to structural and operational hygiene. On 25 March, an environmental health officer made a further visit to the premises specifically to carry out staff testing.

Laboratory results received on 27 March confirmed the presence of salmonella in the food samples taken from Midland Meats. During a fourth visit to the premises on this date, a further four food samples were taken, one of which tested positive. The proprietor was informed that previous samples had tested positive. On a fifth visit to the premises, also on 27 March, environmental health officers conveyed to the proprietor the seriousness of the situation and indicated that they believed there was sufficient evidence available to warrant an application to the court for a closure order. At that stage the proprietor indicated that he would voluntarily close the premises. The proprietor also agreed to meet environmental health officers on the morning of Monday, 30 March, to make arrangements for supervised remedial action.

During the weekend of 28-29 March environmental health officers continued their investigations into affected members of the public. The situation was also continuously monitored by the Eastern Health Board's infection control team. On 30 March environmental health officers took swabs of food contact surfaces and equipment and made arrangements for the detention of the remaining stock on the premises.

On 31 March an environmental health officer visited the proprietor to secure his consent to the destruction of the balance of the stock. Also on that date, the Eastern Health Board issued a press release advising members of the public not to eat food purchased from Midland Meats and announcing a helpline to assist with queries or concerns. To date there have been 18 laboratory-confirmed cases of salmonella typhimurium. Three food workers in the premises of Midland Meats have also tested positive. A total of six cases were hospitalised. Following the establishment of the Eastern Health Board's advice helpline, approximately 300 calls were received of which about one third indicated symptoms of food poisoning which might be linked to the Midland Meats premises. Further investigations, including laboratory testing, are being undertaken to confirm any connection with this outbreak.

With regard to the time involved in analysing samples for infectivity, I understand from the Eastern Health Board that the first samples taken from the premises of Midland Meats were sent for analysis on the morning of Saturday, 21 March. Analysis took place at the Eastern Health Board's microbiological laboratory in Cherry Orchard Hospital.

I am advised by the board that the procedure used to confirm the presence of salmonella typhimurium can take five days from the date of receipt of the sample. I am, however, concerned that there was some delay in analysing the samples in this case and I will contact all health boards to impress upon them the importance of dealing urgently with all samples that might relate to food borne illnesses.

With regard to information for the public, I am advised by the Eastern Health Board that the necessary control measures were put in place on 20 March and there was no evidence to suggest that these measures were not effective until 31 March, when the results of the analysis of the second batch of food samples became available. I am concerned that there may have been some delay in alerting the public and I will contact all health boards in this regard also.

It is regrettable that there should be incidents such as this. It does, however, highlight the need for the highest standards in food hygiene. There is a moral as well as a legal obligation on those involved in the production of food and food products to ensure that the highest standards possible obtain and that the end product is fit for human consumption. Consumers are entitled to assume that the food they buy is safe to eat.