In July 2016, there was an outbreak of E.coli O157:H7 in Scotland, which infected 26 adults and killed a three-year old girl. Food Standards Scotland (FSS), together with Health Protection Scotland, formed an Incident Management Team to identify the source of the outbreak, and in just 24 hours singled out Dunsyre Blue cheese as the cause. It has since emerged that following this decision, no other lines of enquiry or possible alternative sources of contamination were actively explored.
Dunsyre Blue is produced using unpasteurised milk by Errington Cheese Limited, a thriving family-run business recognised as a crown jewel in Scotland’s artisanal food culture. In response to the E.coli outbreak Food Standards Scotland imposed a blanket ban on all Errington cheese, issued a product withdrawal, advised consumers not to eat their product and informed the public that their cheeses were a “risk to health”.
Errington Cheese, was founded in 1985 by Humphrey Errington, now a celebrated and award-winning pioneer of Scottish cheese making. His daughter Selina is in charge of the cheese making these days. Their dairy received almost unqualified hygiene ratings in a routine Environmental Health inspection only one month prior to the outbreak of E.coli. Yet, in the aftermath of the outbreak and its tragic consequences, the FSS stated there were “serious deficiencies” in the cheesemaker’s processes and commissioned laboratory tests, which they claimed showed that Dunsyre Blue was the cause. In response, the Erringtons sent samples of their cheeses to be tested independently, when the tests showed no pathogenic bacteria, further samples were sent to Actalia, the French company that sets protocols and regimes for safety testing all dairy products sold in the EU. “A great deal of cheese consumed in France is made from unpasteurised milk. The laboratories that test the safety of these products are of the very highest microbiological standards, and have developed sophisticated testing regimes to ensure that no bacteria containing harmful toxins are present in any cheese sold,” explained Ronan Calvez, the microbiologist in charge of the tests. The conclusion: “Actalia laboratories are confident that no harmful bacteria are present in the five Errington cheeses tested.”
The growing body of evidence suggesting that the Errington cheeses in question did not have the genetic make up to cause toxic E.coli was strengthened when Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University – who has led the two largest public enquiries into outbreaks of E.coli in the UK – reviewed the laboratory tests carried out by Food Standards Scotland and concluded that there is “no microbiological evidence” linking Dunsyre Blue to Scotland’s E.coli outbreak. Colin Fink, a clinical research virologist at Warwick University who was initially asked to carry out tests on the Errington cheeses agrees with his findings, “I think [the FSS] have actually identified [the E.coli strain] wrongly…I think their science is in error.”
Despite robust evidence that the Dunsyre blue was not the cause of the outbreak, the FSS has dug its heels in, upheld the blanket ban on Errington produce and refused to share its epidemiological evidence, though the limited data it has released from the retrospective food questionnaires completed by those infected have shown that fewer than half of those who contracted E.coli 0157 had actually eaten blue cheese. A similar outbreak of E.coli 0157 occurred in England in the same month, which affected 200 people and killed two. The Food Standards Agency in England later attributed this English outbreak to contaminated salad leaves. No action was ever taken against any supplier. While the dangers of raw milk (and cheese, butter and cream made with it) are real and can have very serious consequences, in the UK, they are also rare – the FSA acknowledged to the Telegraph in 2015, that there had not been a single reported illness associated with drinking raw milk in the UK since 2002, though recently there has been an outbreak at Lower Sizergh Barn farm.
Humphrey Errington believes that Food Standards Scotland is motivated by a “malicious prejudice” against cheese made with unpasteurised milk, which the FSS continues to classify as more dangerous than pasteurised cheese. The Food Standards Agency in England no longer makes such a distinction, and a recent extensive and robust study carried out by the US Food and Drug Agency in 2016 tested 1,606 raw milk cheeses for food poisoning pathogens and found no toxic strains of E. coli in any of these cheeses.
The consequences of the FSS’s action for the Erringtons have been severe – the family is on the verge of bankruptcy as it wages a legal battle to clear its name and regain the right to sell its product. Joanna Blythman, the investigative food journalist, has worked with the Erringtons to set up a crowdfunding page in an effort to support the family and help pay its legal costs. The ‘Save the Errington Cheeses and defend artisan cheesemakers’ page has become a symbol of the David vs Goliath-style battle facing the family business – and is having great success. To date, £24,815 has been raised, almost half of the target £50,000 (the cost of the Errington’s legal fees to date). Some 560 individuals ranging from chefs, academics, shopkeepers, bakers, dairy farmers, brewers and general lovers of real cheese have donated sums ranging from a fiver to hundreds. One anonymous donor, describing him or herself only as “a very angry microbiologist” donated £1,000. The generosity underwriting the crowdfunding campaign appears to be more than an effort to support a small family-run business facing layoffs, bankruptcy and reputational ruin; it has become a rallying cry for the defence of artisan food.
Humphrey Errington is regarded as a pioneer and trailblazer of artisanal cheese making in Scotland, having created the first new Scottish blue cheese in centuries during the 1980s using traditional methods and unpasteurised milk from his small flock of ewes. Messages of solidarity and frustration towards a heavy-handed system that works against artisans like Errington fill the crowdfunding page: “important to support small independent quality producers; stand up to the velvet glove of @FFS”, “must beat non-science based prejudice!”, “from a raw milk producer to one of the finest raw milk cheesemakers the world has ever known…you have done it before…you can do it again, good luck from us all at Ellie’s Dairy!”
The Errington’s ordeal and the mobilisation of support for artisan food producers has led to the founding of the Committee for the Defence of Artisan Food. Just one week old, members of the committee so far include Caroline Rye, Chair of Slow Food Edinburgh, food writers Alex Renton, Christopher Trotter and Joanna Blythman, chefs Pamela Brunton and Fred Berkmiller and Rachel Hammond, an artisan charcutier. Their mission statement is “to defend and support small businesses and artisans producing real, healthy, small-scale foods against any arbitrary, unreasonable, disproportionate actions by food or public health authorities.”
Photograph: Agriculture, Food and Rural Communities
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