No charges to be brought against cheesemaker over girl's E coli death

Libby Brooks
A micrograph image of a strain of E coli. Photograph: Janice Carr/AP

No criminal charges are to be brought against the Scottish cheesemaker implicated in an E coli outbreak that killed a three-year-old girl.

The family-run firm Errington Cheese expressed relief after the Crown Office confirmed that, based on the available evidence, no prosecutions would be brought as a result of the death in September 2016.

Selina Cairns, who runs the company with her father Humphrey Errington, said: “We welcome the Crown Office decision and our thoughts and sympathies remain with the family of the child who sadly died.”

Cairns added that it would be inappropriate to comment further while the decision on whether to hold a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) was under consideration and the company’s own court challenge to a ban on its produce was ongoing.

The Crown Office stated that, should additional evidence come to light, the decision not to prosecute may be reconsidered.

Dunsyre Blue, an unpasteurized cows’ milk cheese produced by the South Lanarkshire manufacturer Errington, was named in a report published in March by Health Protection Scotland as the source of the fatal outbreak.

Twenty-six cases of the same strain of E coli O157 were identified between July and mid-September 2016, with 17 people requiring hospital treatment including the three-year-old child from Dunbartonshire. Her family have been informed of the decision.

Supporters of the cheesemaker described the investigation by Food Standards Scotland as “a vendetta”.

Errington Cheese has never accepted that their produce had anything to do with the tragedy and repeatedly questioned the quality of the investigation by the food standards agency.

The food writer and campaigner, Joanna Blythman, who joined the Committee for the Defence of Artisan Food to support Errington’s case, welcomed the news, saying: “This is just the beginning of correcting a very big injustice. The case against Errington Cheese was always a vendetta, and is now crumbling when submitted to lucid legal minds.”

Food Standards Scotland originally attempted to ban all cheeses made by the firm, a move described as “heavy-handed” by Prof Sir Hugh Pennington, one of the UK’s leading experts in food safety and bacteriology. He said at the time that he believed Food Standards Scotland’s handling of the Dunsyre Blue case had been “a mess”.

Since last autumn, the company has spent tens of thousands of pounds challenging the ban and in December a sheriff court will hear evidence to determine whether there is a scientific case for the ban.

Geoff Ogle, the chief executive of Food Standards Scotland, said: “The decision made by crown counsel on whether to proceed with criminal proceedings is entirely independent and separate to the decisions made during this incident, and has different requirements to decisions made under food law. We note that the decision on whether to proceed with a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) is still under careful consideration, and as there is still an ongoing court case it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Errington Cheese, which pioneered artisanal cheese-making methods in Scotland, was named runner-up in best artisan cheese producer category of the Great British Cheese Awards earlier this month.