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Foodstuffs' bagged lettuce linked to bug

NICOLE MATHEWSON
Last updated 20:05 13/10/2014
Dr Alistair Humphrey
Stacy Squires/FAIRFAX NZ
PUBLIC 'AT RISK': Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Alistair Humphrey said a draft report last week identified lettuce and carrots from a particular supermarket chain as the source.

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Supermarket owner Foodstuffs has confirmed two products sold at its stores may be responsible for a severe outbreak of a gastrointestinal bug.

About 127 people have been affected and 38 hospitalised by the yersinia pseudotuberculosis outbreak since it first appeared last month.

Foodstuffs, the company which owns New World, Pak’n Save and Four Square, said it had viewed the report which named two of its products, Pam's fresh express mesclun salad lettuce and Pam's fresh express lettuce, as possible sources.

The company is investigating this and did not believe any of the potentially affected products were still on its shelves.

Meanwhile, a Canterbury health official has accused the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) of risking public health over the outbreak.

Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Alistair Humphrey said a draft report from Environmental Science and Research (ESR) last week identified lettuce and carrots from a particular supermarket chain as the source.

"Everybody involved in this work, including MPI, ESR, all the public health units and the Ministry of Health, have seen the results of the ESR study, which is quite clear. It is unequivocal and it does name the types of food that have led to this problem and it also names one particular product," Humphrey told Radio New Zealand.

He claimed MPI asked public health officials to keep the name of the supermarket and the products involved a secret, but he decided to name the vegetables to protect the public. 

"[MPI] felt they should work with the industry rather than naming the foods but, of course, that leaves the New Zealand public slightly at risk, in my view.

"The problem is we have a regulator of the production of our domestic food who is also responsible for the promotion of the industry itself," he said.

Labour's food safety spokesman, Damien O'Connor, said MPI seemed "more concerned" about protecting the reputation of supermarkets than the health of Kiwi consumers. 

"MPI either lacks the resources or is incapable of dealing with what should be a relatively minor food safety issue. This will be a concern to our export sectors."

O'Connor said MPI had a conflict of interest between promoting New Zealand products and protecting consumers.

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"It is time the ministry put Kiwi consumers first and publicly released the cause of this nasty bug," he said.

However, MPI  deputy director general Scott Gallacher said the initial findings into the outbreak were withheld to avoid causing a public scare with limited information.

He admitted lettuce and carrots had been associated with the outbreak in the draft report last week, but the information was ‘‘not a slam dunk’’.

Gallacher said MPI did not want to force consumers into making ill-informed decisions or steer them towards other products that may have been responsible.

“It is not a simple situation where we can recall a single product. It is not definitively linked to any one supermarket chain,’’ he said.

He said of 96 affected people who were surveyed, eight could recall the specific brand.

He said while 87 people affected by the illness purchased lettuce, only 17 identified a brand asked about in the survey.

He said public safety remained "MPI's highest priority" and rejected claims the ministry was trying to save the reputation of supermarket chains.

Gallacher said MPI would reveal the cause of the outbreak once it was known for certain.

In the meantime, people should keep fresh food chilled and wash fruit and vegetables before eating them.


- The Press

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