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In November 2019, an outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7 was detected in South Yorkshire, England. Initial investigations established consumption of milk from a local dairy as a common exposure. A sample of pasteurised milk tested the next day failed the phosphatase test, indicating contamination of the pasteurised milk by unpasteurised (raw) milk. The dairy owner agreed to immediately cease production and initiate a recall. Inspection of the pasteuriser revealed a damaged seal on the flow divert valve. Ultimately, there were 21 confirmed cases linked to the outbreak, of which 11 (52%) were female, and 12/21 (57%) were either <15 or >65 years of age. Twelve (57%) patients were treated in hospital, and three cases developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome. Although the outbreak strain was not detected in the milk samples, it was detected in faecal samples from the cattle on the farm. Outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease caused by milk pasteurisation failures are rare in the UK. However, such outbreaks are a major public health concern as, unlike unpasteurised milk, pasteurised milk is marketed as ‘safe to drink’ and sold to a larger, and more dispersed, population. The rapid, co-ordinated multi-agency investigation initiated in response to this outbreak undoubtedly prevented further cases.
In October 2019, public health surveillance systems in Scotland identified an increase in the number of reported infections of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O26:H11 involving bloody diarrhoea. Ultimately, across the United Kingdom (UK) 32 cases of STEC O26:H11 stx1a were identified, with the median age of 27 years and 64% were male; six cases were hospitalised. Among food exposures there was an association with consuming pre-packed sandwiches purchased at outlets belonging to a national food chain franchise (food outlet A) [odds ratio (OR) = 183.89, P < 0.001]. The common ingredient identified as a component of the majority of the sandwiches sold at food outlet A was a mixed salad of Apollo and Iceberg lettuce and spinach leaves. Microbiological testing of food and environmental samples were negative for STEC O26:H11, although STEC O36:H19 was isolated from a mixed salad sample taken from premises owned by food outlet A. Contamination of fresh produce is often due to a transient event and detection of the aetiological agent in food that has a short-shelf life is challenging. Robust, statistically significant epidemiological analysis should be sufficient evidence to direct timely and targeted on-farm investigations. A shift in focus from testing the microbiological quality of the produce to investigating the processes and practices through the supply chain and sampling the farm environment is recommended.
In August 2019, public health surveillance systems in Scotland and England identified seven, geographically dispersed cases infected with the same strain (defined as isolates that fell within the same five single nucleotide polymorphism single linage cluster) of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7. Epidemiological analysis of enhanced surveillance questionnaire data identified handling raw beef and shopping from the same national retailer (retailer A) as the common exposure. Concurrently, a microbiological survey of minced beef at retail identified the same strain in a sample of minced beef sold by retailer A, providing microbiological evidence of the link. Between September and November 2019, a further four primary and two secondary cases infected with the same strain were identified; two cases developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome. None of the four primary cases reported consumption of beef from retailer A and the transmission route of these subsequent cases was not identified, although all four primary cases visited the same petting farm. Generally, outbreaks of STEC O157:H7 in the UK appear to be distinct, short-lived events; however, on-going transmission linked to contaminated food, animals or environmental exposures and person-to-person contact do occur. Although outbreaks of STEC caused by contaminated fresh produce are increasingly common, undercooked meat products remain a risk of infection.
In April 2018, Public Health England was notified of cases of Shigella sonnei who had eaten food from three different catering outlets in England. The outbreaks were initially investigated as separate events, but whole-genome sequencing (WGS) showed they were caused by the same strain. The investigation included analyses of epidemiological data, the food chain and microbiological examination of food samples. WGS was used to determine the phylogenetic relatedness and antimicrobial resistance profile of the outbreak strain. Ultimately, 33 cases were linked to this outbreak; the majority had eaten food from seven outlets specialising in Indian or Middle Eastern cuisine. Five outlets were linked to two or more cases, all of which used fresh coriander although a shared supplier was not identified. An investigation at one of the venues recorded that 86% of cases reported eating dishes with coriander as an ingredient or garnish. Four cases were admitted to hospital and one had evidence of treatment failure with ciprofloxacin. Phylogenetic analysis showed that the outbreak strain was part of a wider multidrug-resistant clade associated with travel to Pakistan. Poor hygiene practices during cultivation, distribution or preparation of fresh produce are likely contributing factors.