Which? made the statement in an open letter on the proposal being put to the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) Board today (23 July) to withhold information about the levels of Campylobacter in supermarket chickens.
In the last update to the board in March the plan was that the FSA would release results, including the names of retailers and processors, of testing of around 1,000 samples every three months, with the first results published around June/July.
Possible U-turn from FSA
However, the recommendations at the board meeting propose a reversal of that decision because of risks to do with misinterpretation or presentation of incomplete data.
The new plan recommends quarterly news stories with a table showing overall cumulate distribution of levels of Campylobacter and there would be no analysis by retailer or producer.
FSA said a drawback of the previous approach is that no interpretation could be placed on interim raw data until the full year’s sampling is complete and analysed.
“There has been legitimate concern expressed by industry and other government departments that publication of incomplete data, consisting of the results of a single quarter’s sampling and analysis with retailers and producers identified for each sample, would facilitate misinterpretation of the interim data with the obvious risk of compilation by third parties of ‘league tables’ that would not be statistically valid nor supportive of any conclusions drawn from such tables.”
‘Great regret…remind you of your role…’
Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, said 72,000 people were reported to have suffered Campylobacter food poisoning last year and it kills an estimated 100 people every year.
“The publication of the performance of each retailer is in the public interest. The FSA should not sit on this survey data which it initially intended to publish in full,” he said.
“The FSA was set up because of concerns about commercial and political interference in decisions about food safety. It is with great regret that it has become necessary to remind you of your role to put consumers first, be independent and operate transparently.”
Benefits versus risk
FSA said that the originally intended approach would be a departure from survey protocol and the benefits would need to outweigh the risks.
“In our original analysis, we believed this approach to publication would be a necessary means of maintaining the focus of retailers and producers on Campylobacter reduction.
“We have subsequently recognised that…many key stakeholders in the poultry supply chain have already identified and initiated encouraging actions aimed at reducing Campylobacter on UK chicken.”
FSA started a survey of Campylobacter on UK-produced chicken at retail in February this year.
It is testing around 4,000 samples of whole, fresh chickens over a 12-month period and sampling is based on UK market shares.
Information includes where the chicken was bought, which abattoir processed it, the category of bird (standard, free-range or organic), and the use by date.
For each chicken, the level of Campylobacter on the carcase (from enumeration from the neck flap expressed as colony forming units per gram) and the level of contamination of the whole outside of the packaging (from swab) will be taken.
FSA said it will publish an analysis that compares the performance of each retailer and each producer covered by the survey once results from a full year’s samples are available.
“This would provide both a larger number of samples, making statistically valid comparisons possible, and would even out the effects of some potentially confounding factors such as seasonality,” said the agency.
24 July: See the update including the decision here