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Hospitals: Listeria

Volume 798: debated on Monday 17 June 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the actions that the Government are taking to protect the public following cases of listeria in hospitals linked to contaminated food. The NHS has identified nine confirmed cases of listeria in seven different hospitals between 14 April and 28 May this year, all of them linked to contaminated sandwiches from a single supplier. All of the known cases involved in-patients and, very sadly, five people have died. I would like to express my condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones and I promise that there will be a full and thorough investigation, and severe consequences if there is any evidence of wrongdoing.

Laboratory testing indicated a link between two cases in Manchester Royal Infirmary and one case in Liverpool. Contaminated sandwiches were identified as the likely cause by Public Health England. The manufacturer, the Good Food Chain, and its supplier, North Country Cooked Meats, have withdrawn the sandwiches and voluntarily ceased supply of all products on 7 June. They are both complying with the Food Standards Agency on a full product withdrawal.

The other cases have been identified at the Royal Derby, Worthing, William Harvey in Ashford, Wexham, Leicester Royal Infirmary, and St Richard’s in Chichester. The risk to the public is very low, but any patients or members of the public with concerns should contact NHS 111, or 999 if they experience severe symptoms.

Listeria infection in healthy people may cause mild illness but is rarely fatal. However, for certain groups it can be much more serious, as we have tragically seen. The NHS, Public Health England and the Food Standards Agency have acted swiftly to identify, contain and investigate the cause of this listeria outbreak. These deaths should never have happened. People rightly expect to be safe and looked after in hospitals, and we must ensure that we take the necessary steps to restore the trust the public deserve to be able to have.

This is about ensuring not just that the food we serve in hospitals is safe—the NHS served 140 million main meals to in-patients last year—but that the food given to patients is healthy and nutritious and aids their recovery. I can inform the House that we are launching a root-and-branch review of all the food in our hospitals, both the food served and the food sold.

The Government will work with the NHS to build on the progress in three vital areas. The first area is eliminating junk food from hospitals. Since the introduction of the NHS Action on Sugar scheme, we have halved the sale of high-sugar soft drinks, and trusts are taking action to remove unhealthy food and drink and replace it with healthier alternatives. After all, hospitals are places for good health.

The second area is improving nutrition. New national standards for all healthcare food will be published this year. All patient menus will have to ensure that minimum patient nutrition standards are met.

The third area is healthier choices. We will work more closely with the Hospital Caterers Association and others to ensure that healthier food choices are available across the NHS.

The review will identify where we need to do more, where we need to do better to improve the quality of food in our hospitals and how we can help people to make healthier choices. I know this is an issue that many colleagues in the House will feel strongly about, as do the public. We will do everything we can to ensure that the food we eat in hospitals is both safe and healthy”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer to this Urgent Question. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with the families of those who have tragically died as a result of the outbreak and those who have fallen sick.

Professor Jose Vazquez-Boland, chair of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, warned in the media over the weekend that:

“Pre-packed sandwiches are recurrently incriminated in the UK in listeriosis episodes”.

This is a concerning revelation, with potentially widespread implications for food packaging, storage and distribution.

Over the weekend the Health Secretary announced that he had ordered a “root-and-branch” review of hospital food. Can the Minister outline exactly what this review will entail and when it is expected to report back? Does the Minister believe the review should be industry-wide, given that the supplier, the Good Food Chain, also supplies sporting venues, businesses and universities nationwide?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for his question. The purpose of the review is to build on previous work and to implement standards for higher-quality food for NHS patients. It will take a root-and-branch approach and will follow the evidence where it can make improvements. The terms of reference are to work with the NHS and stakeholders; they are currently under development, but will be shared with Parliament as soon as they are set in place.

I can also reassure the noble Lord on the question he raised about the products. While GFC manufactures a range of products, in the consumption data gathered from case records only sandwiches were identified as having been consumed. It is therefore anticipated that the review targeted at the NHS is the right approach.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, my thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who died. It is clearly right, as the Secretary of State said in his Statement, that people expect to be safe and looked after in hospitals. Yet the Answer to the Urgent Question seems to spend rather a time talking about healthy food and other wider issues. This is an urgent issue. What will happen urgently to ensure that similar situations cannot happen again? Getting rid of sugar may be important, but ensuring that listeria is not present is vital. What necessary steps will be taken to restore trust urgently? I am sure that we all welcome the Secretary of State back to his full-time job now that he has stopped trying to be leader of his party.

I am sure that the noble Baroness would like to hear exactly how effectively Public Health England and others responded in this case. Obviously, these cases should not have occurred in the first place, but the first case occurred on 26 April. There were two cases in one hospital. The second case in a different hospital did not occur until 16 May. It took one week for Public Health England to ascertain that this was a national issue and that the cases were indeed linked. Thereafter, products were withdrawn. Very swift action was taken by Public Health England and the Food Standards Authority and a clear and concerted investigation is now under way. It will be made clear that this sort of thing cannot happen again and that there will be severe consequences for any companies that do not take careful consideration of the consequences if they do.

My Lords, several important points come out of this tragic incident of five people dying from listeria infections. The first is how quickly we can get a diagnosis of listeria in the food products that are contaminated. Older tests take several days but there are other tests, so I ask the Minister whether rapid diagnosis tests are available. Secondly, if people are infected with listeria monocytogenes it is quite dangerous, so the death of the people concerned may be related to that infection. It is important that the food in the supply chain is tested. Some countries adopt a regulation that requires regular testing of food in the environment where food such as sandwiches is packaged. In the review that will be conducted, will we look at the possibility of such regulation?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Patel. He is absolutely right that one reason why such fast action was able to be taken was that it was possible to confirm by whole genome sequencing that cases at Manchester and Liverpool were linked by an identical strain in a week. Previously, that would have taken an awful lot longer, so we can be pleased that action was taken much quicker.

In terms of lessons learned, the noble Lord is right that we need to look at how to ensure that local authorities undertake inspections and audits of sites that are approved and that we also collect samples every six months and take action on any results of concern. We must make sure that the NHS follows food safety advice from Public Health England and the Food Standards Authority. Public Health England has confirmed that serving sandwiches in hospitals—I apologise. I am going to faint.

Sitting suspended.