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Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 21 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the subject of the outbreak of botulism in Birmingham and the deaths resulting therefrom.

Four elderly people were admitted to hospital in Birmingham on consultants working in the specialty of mental illness—adult—would have responsibility for the treatment of elderly patients.31st July suffering from botulism. Botulism has a high mortality rate and, despite all possible care, two of these patients subsequently died. I am glad to be able to say that the other two are almost fully recovered and have been discharged from hospital. No other cases of botulism have been reported.The source of this outbreak appeared to be a damaged can of USA salmon. Pending the final result of investigations my Department on 31st July warned the public about the risk of consuming any canned salmon from North America. The following day it was possible to limit the warning to canned salmon from the USA. The warning was lifted on 27th September except in respect of salmon from the cannery which produced the can implicated in the outbreak. The public were advised to return any such cans to the shops where they were bought; and arrangements were made for the withdrawal of returned cans, and those still in trade hands, to the importers. I understand that these withdrawal arrangements are now well advanced.Despite thorough investigations both in this country and in the USA it has not been possible with certainty to establish how the can implicated in the outbreak became damaged and contaminated. However, a deficiency in the hygiene standards at the cannery concerned was revealed, and it is for this reason that the warning about canned salmon produced in the past at this cannery remains in force. The deficiency in question concerns the possibility of contamination of cans by their coming into contact with fragments of raw fish during the cooling period following retorting. This resulted from the practice on some occasions of placing wet and dirty protective clothing worn by workers in the eviscerating rooms to dry on the hot cans.That practice in turn was facilitated by the unusual design of the canning plant, in which the eviscerating area was close to that used for cooling retorted cans; this is a design specific to the particular cannery in question. In the view of my Department the practice could have led to the contamination of even undamaged cans. We have been assured by the USA Food and Drug Administration that the practice has not occurred in other USA canneries.Local authority environmental health departments have worked closely with my Department throughout this episode and full co-operation has been received from the trade.