The health secretary has ordered a review of hospital food after five patient deaths were linked to an outbreak of listeria.
There have been nine confirmed cases across the UK, and Public Health England (PHE) confirmed the total number of deaths related to pre-packed sandwiches and salads had risen to five. The cases have been linked to eight different hospitals across seven NHS trusts.
Listeria is a bacteria that can cause the infection listeriosis if ingested. Between 20 to 30 per cent of food borne listeriosis infections in high-risk individuals may be fatal. Most of those who are infected barely notice the illness but those who are high risk, such as pregnant women, babies, the elderly or those with a weakened immune system, may develop a serious infection.
Listeria bacteria can grow in foods, especially soft cheese, unpasteurised milk, and smoked fish, which is why pregnant women are advised to avoid these. It can also grow on other food products, including salads, and can continue to replicate even when food is refrigerated at cold temperatures. The illness can take up to 70 days to develop after contact with the bacteria.
The infections have been traced back to a sandwich and salad production company, The Good Food Chain, that supplies food to 43 NHS Trusts across the UK. The company voluntarily ceased production and has since gone into liquidation because of the outbreak.
It had been supplied with meat produced by North Country Cooked Meats, which subsequently produced a positive test result for the outbreak strain of listeria. The North Country Cooked Meats has also halted production, according to Public Health England.
Inspectors detected listeria at North Country Cooked Meats, in Salford, in 2009 and 2010. None had been found since, Salford Council said, and an inspection this February found the firm “highly compliant with food regulations”.
PHE said it had been analysing previously known cases of listeria from the past two months to see if they were linked.
“To date, there have been no patients linked to this incident outside healthcare organisations, but we continue to investigate,” Dr Nick Phin, of Public Health England, said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I have been incredibly concerned by this issue and strongly believe that we need a radical new approach to the food that is served in our NHS.
“Staff, patients and families deserve so much better – our NHS should be at the forefront of supporting people to make healthy choices.
“I have instructed the NHS to conduct a root and branch review of hospital food.”