WISHAW butcher John Barr was in disgrace last night after a sheriff ruled that his ''deliberate deception'' of environmental health officers may have caused every death from E-coli in the world's worst-ever outbreak.

Sheriff Principal Graham Cox also found that his ''dishonesty'' in response to inquiries during the epidemic may have cost six lives.

The two damning indictments are contained in his written judgement on the fatal accident inquiry into 21 deaths across central Scotland.

Mr Barr failed to disclose the true nature and extent of his business. That meant his premises escaped registration under the Meat Products (Hygiene) Regulations, 1994. With their more demanding criteria, including more frequent inspections, they were ''a reasonable precaution'' to avoid deaths from E-coli.

However, Mr Barr had not been honest as to the nature of his trade, and the sheriff declared: ''It cannot be said that if he had been registered in terms of the 1994 regulations this outbreak would not have taken place - but it is sufficient for my determination that it might have been.''

''A reasonable precaution then, which applies to all deaths resulting from the accidental ingestion of E-coli 0157 - which if taken might have avoided the accident - was for Barr's premises to have been registered.

''The failure so to register was caused by the deliberate deception of EHOs by Mr Barr by failing to disclose the true nature and extent of his business.''

The sheriff found that if the butcher had responded ''fully and honestly'' to investigators about his outlets, two Scotmid stores in Bonnybridge might have been contacted more quickly and sales of contaminated meat halted.

However, without Mr Barr's full co-operation ''there was no possibility of preventing the sales . . . and the tragedy which followed upon them.''

The tragedy embraced five pensioners in a Banknock nursing home, and also 87-year-old Mrs Christina Wright, of Bonnybridge, who died from E-coli after eating meats supplied by Barr.

Sheriff Cox also said five failures by Mr Barr contributed to the outbreak. These ranged from failing to use temperature probes for cooking meat, to not drawing up cleaning schedules to reduce the risk of contamination, and to inadequate training of staff.

The findings will shock loyal customers of a Master Butcher of the Year who traded for 30 years, and saw charges thrown out of court in connection with the outbreak.

Last night he was reading the report, according to his wife Elaine - who the sheriff said had not been an untruthful witness, before adding that ''her husband was whenever it suited him''.

She said at their luxury bungalow on the outskirts of Overtown, Lanarkshire: ''He's just reading the bits where he gets severe criticism - it's not very pleasant reading.''

She said life for her and her husband had been difficult since the E-coli outbreak first came to public attention: ''It's been very difficult - it's gone on so long. We have settled down in the meantime to a half normal life. Life will never be normal as we knew it again for us - but life will never be normal again for so many people. So many people have been involved - it's terrible.''

Lawyer Paul Santoni, who represented the widow of Alex Gardiner, 69, said he would sue for damages unless Mr Barr's insurers accept responsibility.

Mr Gardiner was one of eight pensioners who died on November 27 1996 after eating meat provided by Mr Barr at an annual church lunch in Wishaw. The sheriff ruled that the stew and gravy eaten at the lunch were contaminated by the time they reached the hall.

There were also demands last night for a personal apology from Mr Barr, and for a Government inquiry into food safety. ''What hurts is that he never personally said sorry to the families of those who died,'' said 30-year-old Sharon McKellar, whose grandmother Mary Smith, 90, died in hospital.

Special professor of food science Verner Wheelock said the outbreak reflected fundamental weaknesses, and added that safety procedures across Britain are inadequate because they are not thorough enough.

''We need to look at training, management and procedures and that can only be done thoroughly with a government inquiry,'' he said.

The report also criticises North Lanarkshire Council, in particular, its head of protective services Graham Bryceland, and environmental health officers Jeffery Tonner and Douglas Calder.

It says that Mr Bryceland and his team were ''less than effective'' in preventing the consumption of contaminated food. For that, Mr Bryceland ''must accept responsibility''.

The sheriff also found a contributory factor was the failure of EHOs to pick up the hazards inherent within the Barr premises before the epidemic. He referred to Mr Tonner and Mr Calder's ''lack of initiative,'' and said they appeared to be in a mode which tendered them capable of accepting and carrying out Mr Brycleland's instructions but without contributing thought to the significance of their discoveries.

However, he added they were not sufficiently well briefed to have been an efficient force in regard to stopping sales and recalling possibly contaminated food.

The sheriff also said Mr Barr appeared to regard them as something which all food premises periodically had to ''tolerate,'' and went on: ''I do not think he had any great respect for the EHOs but he was shrewd enough to know the powers which they could wield if he did not co-operate with such demands as they might make.

''He paid lip service to them and all the time managed to conceal from them the full extent of his business.''

Scottish Health Minister Sam Galbraith welcomed the Sheriff Principal's determination, and added: ''Our thoughts today must be with the families of the 21 people who lost their lives, and those who fell seriously ill.

"I believe that we owe it to those families, and to the public, to look carefully at all the FAI recommendations to determine what further action may be required to improve public safety.''

Needless loss Page 5

Leader comment Page 18