The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has backtracked on its commitment to publish full details of campylobacter contamination levels on chicken in retail stores.
The FSA started surveying chicken in February, involving 1,000 samples every three months. It then committed in March to release full details each quarter, revealing campylobacter levels for named retailers and processors.
This information was expected to be published in June or July, despite poultry producer concerns that the information might be taken out of context, leading to the compilation of “league tables” that might damage to the poultry market.
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But, addressing the latest FSA board meeting (23 July), policy director Steve Wearne urged members to reconsider. Publishing data now, based on just 1,000 samples, would not be statistically valid, he said.
Furthermore, the original aim of going public at this stage was to increase pressure on retailers and processors to take action against campylobacter. But the evidence was that the FSA had already “succeeded in gaining traction at senior executive level” and the whole supply chain was now acting to improve the situation.
Instead, he suggested the FSA should just publish an overview, showing cumulative levels of campylobacter in retailers each quarter, but not the provenance of each sample. A full retailer analysis should only be published after a year’s sampling. “This is not about whether we should publish full information, but about what we publish when,” he said.
The revised strategy prompted a strong debate, with several board members insisting the FSA should stick to its earlier commitment in the name of transparency. “I would feel particularly uncomfortable about not fulfilling our previous promise,” said Liz Breckenridge of Consumer Focus Scotland.
But FSA chief executive Catherine Brown said releasing full details now would do little to enable consumers to make more informed decisions.
Board chairman Tim Bennett agreed, but suggested that, as well as not naming retailers and processors now, the FSA should look to increase the level of raw chicken sampling with a view to publishing full details faster.