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Asda and Tesco are facing legal action after two people were hospitalised with E. coli infections allegedly linked to salad leaves contained in own-label sandwiches purchased from their stores.

London-based legal firm Fieldfisher said it has issued Letters of Claim to the two retailers for breach of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 on behalf of the families of victims. “Under the Act, companies producing food must ensure it is safe to eat. If it causes illness, it is a breach of their duty and those injured are eligible to claim compensation, not least to fund possible ongoing medical care,” commented Harvinder Kaur, legal director within Fieldfisher’s serious injury team.

Both cases are associated with the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) outbreak, which saw bakery suppliers including Samworth Brothers and Greencore issue precautionary recalls for food-to-go sandwiches and wraps last month. Lettuce, which may have been used in these products, has since been identified as the likely source of the outbreak.

A spokesperson for Asda said it had not yet received any letter from Fieldfisher regarding the claims, adding “as soon as we do, we will review the details of the claim as a matter of urgency”. Tesco was also contacted for comment.

Two deaths, rising cases

An updated press release from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on 27 June revealed it had identified two individuals in England who had died within 28 days of contracting a STEC infection. Both deaths occurred in May and both victims had underlying medical conditions, with one of these deaths likely linked to their STEC infection, added the agency. The source of their infections was not confirmed.

A further 19 cases had been confirmed since the previous UKHSA update, bringing the total number of confirmed STEC 0145 cases in the UK to 275. “We’re pleased that fewer cases have been reported, however we still expect to see a few more cases linked to this outbreak as further samples are referred to us for testing,” commented Amy Douglas, incident director at UKHSA.

Earlier last month, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported that food chain and epidemiological links had enabled it to narrow down a wide range of foods to a type of lettuce used in sandwich products as the likely cause of the outbreak.

“This remains a complex investigation and we continue to work with the relevant businesses and the local authorities to ensure necessary steps are being taken to protect consumers,” stated Darren Whitby, head of incidents at the FSA. “Although we are confident in the likely source of the outbreak being linked to lettuce, work continues to confirm this and identify the root cause of the outbreak with the growers, suppliers and manufacturers so that actions can be taken to prevent a re-occurrence.”

E. coli hasn’t been the only bacteria causing health concerns among the food-to-go sector in the past month. Both The Real Wrap Co (recently acquired by Samworth Brothers) and Bread Spread Ltd issued recalls of their ranges of sandwiches, wraps, baguettes and more as a precautionary measure due to the possible presence of listeria.