An outbreak of Legionnaires' disease which claimed two lives and struck down more than 20 other members of the public was caused by sub-standard cleaning and maintenance of a cooling tower, a court has been told.
The "critical" failings at HP Bulmer's cider mill in Hereford provided an ideal breeding ground for the bacteria which caused the disease, prosecutor Mark Harris told the city's Crown Court.
Opening the case against Bulmers and its water treatment contractor, Cheshire-based Nalco Ltd, Mr Harris said the outbreak in 2003 had been traced to cooling tower No 9 at the cider maker's site in Plough Lane, Hereford.
Nalco, which is based in Northwich, and Bulmers both pleaded guilty last year to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act by failing to ensure the safety of persons not in their employment.
Mr Harris told Judge Alistair McCreath, who will sentence the company, that two cooling towers were not cleaned properly before being pressed into use following the apple harvest in 2003.
Mr Harris, prosecuting on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive, added: "The outbreak came to the attention of the consultant in communicable disease control for this county at the end of October 2003.
"Through the period into December the matter was a substantial public health issue in and around the city. Of the 28 cases, the age range (of the victims) was between 36 and 91, and 21 of these persons were male.
"Unhappily, from this number, two persons actually died."
Most of the cases required hospital treatment, the court heard, although five patients were treated at home.
It was a matter of good fortune, Mr Harris said, that the number of people infected was not greater.
Describing the circumstances which led to legionella bacteria "flourishing" inside two cooling towers at Bulmers, Mr Harris said the drinks firm had then operated outdated water treatment policies.
Nalco had carried out a risk assessment on behalf of Bulmers in September 2002, the prosecutor said, but had then failed to identify necessary safety measures.
As a result of these failings, other systemic safety deficiencies and poor training, two cooling towers became infected with legionella.
"Towers nine and 15 were in such a condition that they provided an ideal environment for the growth and proliferation of legionella material," Mr Harris went on.
Mark Bishop, acting for Bulmers, apologised to the public on behalf of the company and said it was totally resolved to prevent anything like the outbreak from ever happening again.
The firm had placed a high priority on understanding what had gone wrong, the lawyer said.