A new expert group to drive forward a co-ordinated approach in Scotland to protecting the public from E. coli 0157 was announced today.

The Task Force, to be led jointly by the Food Standards Agency Scotland and the Scottish Executive Health Department, will be responsible for implementing and developing a co-ordinated strategy for minimising the risk of infection and ensuring the public are aware of the best hygiene precautions to take. Representatives from the Agency in Scotland, the Scottish Executive, consumer groups, the food and farming industries, and other relevant bodies will take part in the initiative.

New research published today at a conference in Edinburgh on E. coli O157 has reinforced the need to raise public awareness and tackle this organism on an integrated basis. It shows that while contaminated food continues to pose a high risk of E. coli infection, human contact with livestock and their faeces plays a much greater part than previously thought.

Announcing the Task Force, the Agency's Director in Scotland, Dr George Paterson, said:

    "There remains a serious possibility of outbreaks from food contaminated with E. coli O157 - as happened with the tragic 1996 outbreak in Central Scotland. We need to be particularly vigilant for the sake of high risk groups such as the very young and the elderly.

    "That is why the actions taken over recent years such as food safety campaigns aimed at minimising risk of cross-contamination and emphasising the real need for good hygiene and cooking practices will be reinforced by the Agency in Scotland. We also have the soon-to-be-implemented licensing scheme for butchers as well as a strictly-enforced Clean Livestock Policy for animals entering the food chain.

    "However, the research emerging today clearly shows a shift away from food towards farm livestock and environmental contamination as the current main source of infection. Human contact with animals and animal faeces poses the greatest risk of infection. Advice on visits to open farms was recently re-issued by the Scottish Executive but clearly more needs to be done to let the public know that E. coli O157 poisoning is about much more than eating contaminated food. That is why we are today announcing the establishment of the E. coli Task Force in Scotland.

    "The Task Force will bring together experts from a number of different fields - health, rural affairs and environment representatives from the Scottish Executive, farming bodies, consumer groups, the food industry and other interested parties. The Food Standards Agency will play a vital role as it has a duty to protect the consumer by ensuring food safety from farm to fork.

    "This joined-up approach will ensure cohesive action is taken to further protect the public from E. coli O157 poisoning. A number of measures have already been taken to help consumers and the food and farming industries reduce the risks of infection - this new Task Force represents another major step forward."

Sir John Arbuthnott, Agency Board member and Chairman of the Scottish Food Advisory Committee, said:

    "E. coli O157 and the dangers it poses are well-known in Scotland following a number of high-profile and tragic outbreaks. It is a problem which needs a co-ordinated and direct intervention if we are to make a real impact and reduce the risks to public health. The majority of the recommendations in the Pennington Report - which followed the Central Scotland outbreak - have been implemented and this has no doubt helped save lives. But we must not be complacent.

    "The E. coli Task Force will seek new ways of controlling this dangerous organism and ensure that we continue to make the public aware of the need to be vigilant. I am delighted that the Food Standards Agency Scotland, together with the Scottish Executive, will lead the Task Force, thereby demonstrating its commitment to consumer safety and the protection of public health."

1. Following the Central Scotland E. coli outbreak in 1996, Professor Hugh Pennington produced a report outlining a number of recommendations to reduce the risk of future outbreaks.

2. The Clean Livestock Policy was introduced to drive up hygiene standards in slaughterhouses and abattoirs. The Butchers Licensing Regulations, due to come into force in October 2000, will drive up standards at the point of sale in shops selling raw meat and ready-to-eat food.

3. A number of food safety campaigns have been run in the past by the Scottish Executive (and its predecessor, the Scottish Office). Future campaigns will be run by the Food Standards Agency, which assumed responsibility for food safety matters on April 1.

4. Today's conference Zoonotic Infections in Livestock and the Risk to Public Health: VTEC O157 is being held at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. It brings together a number of different pieces of research on E.coli O157. One of the main findings is that although food remains an important means of human infection, contact with livestock and the livestock environment plays a greater role than previously thought.

5. The terms of reference and membership of the E.coli Task Force will be announced in the near future.