Experts have gathered in Edinburgh today for the first of two meetings which aim to publicise the results of current surveillance and research programmes on harmful organisms in food. The conference has been jointly organised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in conjunction with the Scottish Executive for Rural Affairs, National Assembly for Wales Agriculture Department, the Department for Health and the newly formed Food Standards Agency. The first of two such meetings concentrates on verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli O157 (VTEC O157), commonly known as E.coli O157. Jim Scudamore, MAFF's Chief Veterinary Officer, gave the conference's introductory presentation. Mr Scudamore said: "Since first being identified as a cause of disease in humans in 1982, VTEC O157 has emerged as a significant public health problem. It can cause anything from mild diarrhoea to a life-threatening intestinal condition and haemolytic uraemic syndrome. "Following much research into the organism, we are beginning to understand it a little better and the conference is an opportunity to consider all the new information together and let the public know what we have found out. "We are looking at the ways in which humans can become infected and the risk factors associated with that, and we will consider the current recommendations for protecting public health. "In the past few years it has been established that animals, particularly cattle, are a source of VTEC O157 for the human population, although the animals themselves rarely become ill. The results of the on-farm and abattoir studies will begin to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of the condition in animals." Research shows that although food remains an important means of human infection, the environment plays a greater role as a source of infection than previously thought.