FOUR people have been hospitalised after an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning at a Darlington pub that also led to another 15 people falling ill.

The Copper Beech pub, in Neasham Road, has voluntarily stopped serving food after a number of cases of the infectious disease were linked to its kitchens.

Officers from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) have started an investigation to discover the source of the outbreak, which they believe has now been contained.

A spokesman for the pub, which is owned by the Punch Taverns chain, said the licensee had co-operated fully with the investigation and had closed the kitchens as soon as a possible link was identified.

He said the kitchens have now been cleared for re-opening by environmental health experts, but the pub has chosen to wait until the source of the infection is identified.

The salmonella bacterium can cause diarrhoea, stomach cramps and sometimes vomiting and fever. Most people recover within four to seven days without treatment, but occasionally the illness can become more serious and require hospital admission.

Nineteen confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning and one suspected case have been reported in people who ate in the Copper Beech’s restaurant between June 2 and 19.

Four people were admitted to hospital but have since been discharged. All of those who were infected have now recovered or are recovering.

A spokeswoman for the Health Protection Agency said the agency was called to the pub on June 21 and immediately put control measures in place.

HPA North-East consultant Dr Deb Wilson, the chairwoman of the outbreak control team, said: “A range of control measures are in place to reduce the spread of infection.

"There is not thought to be an ongoing public health risk. However, the number of cases may increase if we receive further reports of illness dating back to the period before the control measures were introduced.”

The environmental health team at Darlington Borough Council is working with the HPA to interview people with suspected food poisoning and collect samples, which will be analysed by the HPA.

The Copper Beech has held a five-star food hygiene-rating from Darlington Borough Council for the past five years.

A statement from Punch Taverns said: “The pub has stopped serving food voluntarily until a source of the outbreak is identified.

“The licensee has co-operated fully with environmental health teams throughout the investigation.

“The environmental health officers believe that the five star standard of food hygiene has been maintained and cleared the pub for reopening.”

Salmonella bacteria lives in the gut of many farm and other animals and can be found on raw meat and poultry.

Eggs, milk and other foods such as vegetables, fruit and shellfish can become contaminated through contact with manure in soil or sewage in water.

Salmonella poisoning can also be spread from person to person by poor hygiene, by not washing hands properly after going to the toilet and after handling contaminated food.

Anyone who is concerned about symptoms suggesting salmonella infection is asked to call their GP or local out-of-hours service.

People in County Durham and Darlington can also call 111 for advice.