EVIDENCE that E.coli 0157 is carried by birds has been uncovered by researchers at Lancaster University who have warned that the potentially lethal bacteria could enter the human food chain.
The disease had been assumed to be restricted to farms. Keith Jones, the biologist behind the research, said: "If this organism is becoming more common in the environment, the chances of infection are going to become greater."
The disease is quite rare and had barely been heard of until last November's outbreak in Lanarkshire which killed 18 people. Abattoir hygiene has been scrutinised. Last week the Government was accused of suppressing the clinical findings of a June 1996 report into abbatoirs, entitled Red Meat.
Since the recognition of E.coli 0157 in 1982 the number of cases has escalated. Beef and dairy cattle have been established as the main carriers of the organism, with outbreaks of infection directly connected with consumption of beef. However Dr Jones said the distribution of E.coli in the environment and its potential routes of transmission to cattle had been a mystery until now.
His team has investigated a number of birds including gulls which nest around Morecambe Bay. Many of the gulls roost on nearby farmland and fells and have been implicated in the spread of salmonella, so much so that a culling programme has been implemented. However this is the first time E.coli 0157 has been isolated from bird droppings.