Ever since I arrived at the FSA I have been wondering how long it would take the media and consumers to wake up to campylobacter. For the first year, I wondered how long it would take producers and retailers to wake up to it too in terms of actually doing anything about it.
During Food Safety Week in June, we succeeded in putting the issue firmly on the public agenda. We told consumers the truth we have been telling them for years – but this time we got traction with our messages. 280,000 people a year get ill from campylobacter poisoning, and more than a thousand are hospitalised. We put human faces to the statistics, so hopefully people will now know they need to be careful about avoiding cross-contamination in their kitchen and cook their chicken properly.
But what of those in the chicken supply chain? The FSA position is clear – it is the responsibility of those making money from food to make sure it is safe and what it says it is. We simply don’t think it’s sustainable for two thirds of UK chicken to be contaminated with campylobacter, and for us to rely just on the action of consumers.
The recent Guardian article mixed up campylobacter and compliance, which are two separate issues. But it does help keep at the forefront of everyone’s mind the need for all parts of the industry to demonstrate real action.
For years now, the FSA has tried to convince processors and retailers to act on campylobacter. The financial cost to the UK economy is around £900m annually. Although there has been a lot of research and some good work on packaging, there has so far been no material investment in interventions designed to make a difference and no material reduction in levels of campylobacter. I contrast this with the level of investment and progress the snack industry has made in reducing acrylamide.
Campylobacter remains the FSA’s number one priority and we will continue to do all we can to encourage industry, particularly trusted brands, to make the necessary investment to tackle the problem, which is their responsibility to resolve.
Catherine Brown is CEO of the Food Standards Agency