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Victoria: Lago Smallgoods named as possible source of contaminated food resulting in an outbreak of salmonella muenchen; company denies responsibility

TONY EASTLEY: First, to the latest crisis to hit Australia's food industry. In Victoria it's been revealed that two people have died and other people are ill as a result of suspected salmonella poisoning, and contaminated meat is the likely cause. And questions are being asked about how long it took Health Department officials to make details of the outbreak public.

The Lago Smallgoods company in Melbourne's northern suburbs has been named as the possible source of contamination, though Lago officials are denying that their food has caused the illness. However, the question being asked at the moment is why it's taken three weeks for the illness, and death, to be connected to its possible source, and why only this morning the public has been informed of the outbreak.

Louisa Sacatelli has been at a press conference held by Victoria's Chief Medical Officer, and she joins us now.

Louisa, what official details do we have about the salmonella outbreak?

LOUISA SACATELLI: Tony, we know as you've said that two people have died from eating salmonella contaminated corned silverside, or possibly processed ham. The two people are both from Melbourne. One man was 79 and another woman was 86. They developed gastroenteritis due to this salmonella, and it's a particular strain called muenchen. But there are other cases; 24 other people in Victoria. The age range is from one years old to 95. There's been one case in New South Wales and seven cases across South Australia. The product has also gone to Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania. And as you've said, the source for all this is a Melbourne-based company. It's a family-owned company called Lago Smallgoods, based out at Reservoir. The company is voluntarily recalling all its products; it is cooperating. But anyone in doubt who isn't sure what the brand name is for their corned silverside or ham, is advised to discard it rather than trying themselves to track down the supplier.

TONY EASTLEY: Louisa, what is the Lago company saying about the contamination?

LOUISA SACATELLI: The company is not accepting liability. Lago Smallgoods is a small family concern; it has 50 employees. But they do not believe they are exclusively responsible for this. In fact the Health Department has still failed to convince the company they are responsible. The company thinks the Department has got it wrong. They believe that they comply with all the regulations, their world-best practice, et cetera. They have put a lot of investment into making sure that everything's as it should be. But the Health Department, for its part, told us in no uncertain terms, it's convinced. It says it has the proof necessary to demand a recall of all Lago products and that's what's happened. The Health Department thinks that there was a fault somewhere in the production process at Lago.

LOUISA SACATELLI: Dr Rouch, how long have these people been in hospital before they died?

DR GRAHAM ROUCH: I don't have that information. I don't know whether Dr Lester can help us.

DR ROSEMARY LESTER: One was two days in hospital and one was 10 days in hospital.

LOUISA SACATELLI: Why, if they were in hospital and ill for that extent of time, were we not informed earlier that there may be a possible communicable disease that would be a danger to the [...]?

DR ROSEMARY LESTER: With all salmonella outbreaks, we are dealing with inbuilt delays in the system, in that the type of salmonella .. the [...] has to be taken, the type of salmonella has to be confirmed and then that has to be reported to us as part of that particular outbreak. And as Dr Rouch said, the fact that the deaths have occurred, of course, we treat that very seriously, but we treat all clusters of salmonella seriously and we investigate them all in exactly the same way.

Because we are dealing with a very commonly consumed product, in sliced meats, it has been very difficult to tease out, and because we are dealing with a unlabelled product, where we can't ask the consumer directly which company have you purchased this from, it's been very difficult to get the details of the food histories out. If we were dealing with an uncommon product or a single source of distribution, then it's much easier to track down the source of contamination.

LOUISA SACATELLI: Why do you say that anyone with uneaten meat, - before last Friday, 14 March - why the weeks difference?

DR GRAHAM ROUCH: What we're saying here is, it's more difficult for the customer, and that's why they are going to have to either take the decision to discard it or make the effort to confirm where it's come from. If it was manufactured since Friday, by Lago, we know it's safe from our tests.

LOUISA SACATELLI: So you must have known a week ago that the meat was possibly....

DR GRAHAM ROUCH: On Friday last, we had, as part of our investigation - and among many premises, and tests were done - we were able to convince ourselves that there were no salmonellas present in any Lago's product, contemporary product.

LOUISA SACATELLI: If you were look at that product over a week ago, why have we not been warned of this earlier?

DR GRAHAM ROUCH: We couldn't warn people earlier because we had nothing to warn them about. We've been....

LOUISA SACATELLI: Two deaths?

DR GRAHAM ROUCH: ...looking at the cause of this. What can we warn people about if we can't tell them what the product is and what they can do about it.

LOUISA SACATELLI: But if you were investigating the product, you must have had your suspicions?

DR GRAHAM ROUCH: We had suspicions about a range of products, including meat products, and that's why these tests were done, obviously.

JOURNALIST:Dr Rouch, can I ask why it is that you believe .. what is it that is making the Department believe that the company is responsible for the outbreak?

DR GRAHAM ROUCH: This is based on the epidemiology, and that is a combination of factors of the cases, their food histories, and in particular, that all those food histories link back to sliced ham or sliced .. pre-cooked corned beef. And indeed, the majority of those, and all of those that it's possible to confirm, we have confirmed that they are purchased from outlets, all supplied by Lago, and that includes Lago's own retail shop. Of course, they sell no other product but their own, and several of our cases come from people who ate product bought directly from Lago themselves.

TONY EASTLEY: Dr Graham Rouch, and Victorian health officials at a press conference in Melbourne this morning. The reporter there, Louisa Sacatelli.