The Food Standards Agency has slammed retailers for putting renewed pressure on it not to ‘name and shame’ them in its campylobacter survey on supermarket chicken.

In a paper published today ahead of the FSA’s board meeting on Tuesday (5 November), FSA chief executive Catherine Brown said: “It is disappointing that the British Retail Consortium, which speaks on behalf of retailers, has written to us again pressing us not to release the results of the retail survey and seeking to call into question the validity of the sampling plan, which they were consulted about before the survey commenced.”

The FSA has been sampling fresh chicken since the beginning of the year and tested it for the campylobacter food poisoning bug. The second tranche of quarterly results from the tests are due this month, and the FSA plans to publish the names of the retailers the chickens were bought from with the results. Suppliers will not be named until all the test results are in next year.

Retailers and the poultry industry have clashed with the FSA over its plans to ‘name and shame’ a number of times in recent months, arguing the publication of names in the quarterly results would be premature and likely to confuse consumers. After announcing plans to ‘name and shame’ in the spring, this led to the FSA agreeing in July not to go ahead with naming retailers in its quarterly results but subsequently changing its position in September, when it announced names would be published after all.

Responding to Brown’s comments in the FSA board paper, a spokesman for the BRC said it was surprised at the FSA’s reaction. “We were simply asking for confirmation that there was evidence behind the survey results which would give consumers clear information,” he said. “The FSA is an evidence based organisation; however, their findings at this stage are limited, based on a very small sample. The original recommendation by the FSA in its July 2014 Board Paper was to publish individual retail figures only once they had more robust results based on a year’s sample. Not only is the current sample very small but they were taken based on 2010 sales data, which doesn’t reflect the change in consumers’ buying habits since then.”

The BRC added retailers were absolutely committed to reducing campylobacter rates. “However, despite the millions that have been invested there is, currently, no commercially available proven method,” its spokesman added. “Research continues to look for one, but in the meantime the introduction of leakproof packaging has been acknowledged by the FSA as being highly effective in preventing any issues when handling chicken when shopping.”

Praise for Aldi

Campylobacter is the UK’s most common cause of food poisoning, and the FSA’s number one food safety priority.

In the past, the agency has criticised retailers and suppliers for not taking the issue seriously enough, but Brown this week stressed important progress was being made, despite the clash with the BRC.

She highlighted Aldi as a retailer taking proactive steps to reduce campylobacter, writing: “I was delighted that Aldi took the initiative to come in and talk to me and the team about the work they are doing to reduce Campylobacter in their supply chain.”

Brown also mentioned work at Bailey’s Turkeys as an impressive example of industry efforts to tackle campylobacter, and singled out processors Faccenda and Moy Park for praise.  

“Faccenda has this month announced their commitment to Sonosteam, an innovative technology that has shown good initial impacts in an experimental setting,” Brown said.

“During the Board’s recent visit to Moy Park, I was very impressed by the work they had done on biosecurity on farm – finding cost effective ways of going well above and beyond Red Tractor standards. It was also very pleasing to see new controls Moy Park had introduced in the production plant to segregate team members handling raw poultry from those handling packed product – improvements that they had been inspired to make by the Quarter One retail survey results, showing that there is still a (low) level of contamination on the outside of some leak proof packaging.”