Concerns over the management of the outbreak in November 1996 – which was linked to a butcher's shop in Lanarkshire and claimed the lives of 21 – were raised by then Scottish Office health minister, James Douglas-Hamilton.
A copy of a memo dated December 5. 1996, sent to Sir Russell Hillhouse, the under-secretary of state at the Scottish Office, from the health minister, reads: "The key issue to be addressed is that when there is an outbreak of infectious disease whether the public health interest should over-ride the food industry and agricultural interests. I believe the public health interest should be paramount, but it was not seen to do so in this case."
Douglas-Hamilton raised concerns that the management executive of the NHS had been "left on the sidelines" and registered a "strong objection" to not receiving all the minutes regarding E-coli from the outset before key decisions were made.
He said a food hazard warning notice went out to the public without his knowledge. But his comments are in contrast to a reply he sent days later in response to a letter from George Roberston MP, which asked whether the health minister had been aware of the food hazard warning of November 27.
In a letter on December 8 1996, Douglas-Hamilton wrote: "I have kept closely in touch with the developing situation, through daily briefings from officials since the matter was first brought to my attention early on 25 November."
The outbreak, which led to Wishaw butcher John M Barr and Son being fined £2250, was the worst recorded until last year.
Recommendations following a public inquiry chaired by Professor Hugh Pennington led to the introduction of licensing of butcher shops in the UK.
But agriculture minister Douglas Hogg argued E-coli was a "Scottish issue" and that licensing should only be in Scotland.
A memo to Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth, on March 19, 1997, noted: "The Cabinet Office and No 10 were not impressed by Mr Hogg's idea."
BY JUDITH DUFFY