Pennington writes: Outbreaks are full of lessons

I’ve never met Hugh Pennington (or Sir Hugh as he’s known to some), but as far as food safety gurus go, he’s way up there. In 1997 he led a public inquiry into a massive E. coli O157 outbreak linked to a Scottish butcher resulting in 21 deaths. In 2006 he was tasked with deconstructing an additional E. coli O157 outbreak that tragically led to the death of 5-year-old Mason Jones.hugh.pennington-184x300

Pennington has some serious street cred. He writes in Scottish Justice Matters this month about E. coli and the law. The below is an impactful passage that exemplifies a daily barrier to keeping food safe.

HACCP works. Ideally a food business prepares its own plan, but SMEs will probably buy one. Their understanding of hazards is sometimes poor. And there is dishonesty; William Tudor lied to environmental health officers, and John Barr was economical with the truth. Such behaviour poses a big challenge for regulators. While it is a step too far to continually invoke Paxman’s principle (‘Why is this person lying to me?’), box ticking will not do; personal experience and even intuition is very important in detecting the ill-intentioned but well- informed operator.

In my experience Inquiries have been good at identifying lessons but less effective at ensuring that they are learned.

The lessons are all there; learning them – and doing something – is the challenge.



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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.