E.coli O157 & Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome

HUSH push for facts under freedom of information

5th October 2006

In the December 2005 newsletter, HUSH reported that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) had been lobbied by an unnamed US burger chain for a reduction in guidance relating to the cooking times and temperatures for burgers. The FSA passed the matter to their scientific advisors, the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF), who formed an ad hoc group to review the matter.

The US burger chain was invited to make a presentation to the ad hoc group. At this presentation, they submitted evidence contrasting British guidelines with advice in other countries including the far less stringent requirements in the United States (There is presently a wide discrepancy between British advice to cook burgers at 70°c for 2 minutes and American advice to cook burgers at 70°c instantaneously). The ad hoc group concluded that the general guidelines should remain unchanged but also recommended that producers who could prove their final product was safe could use lower temperatures / times.

HUSH were concerned at the lack of openness of the whole process and requested that the FSA disclose the name of US burger chain. This was refused on the basis that it would damage the company's 'commercial interests'.

The charity instructed Leigh Day & Co, solicitors, who again requested that the FSA identify name of the US burger chain and also provide copies of all information considered by the ad hoc group in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act. Leigh Day & Co. also complained about the lack of openness of the review and the fact that, unlike the unnamed company, HUSH had not been invited to make a presentation to the ad hoc group.

Following protracted correspondence, including the threat of legal action, the FSA finally identified the company as being McDonalds. The FSA have provided some, but not all, of the information considered by the ad hoc Group. Outstanding information includes copies of two highly relevant unpublished reports, one on the epidemiology of E.coli O157 and the other on the contamination of carcases and hides (and perhaps meat and meat products) with E.coli O157. The FSA are also continuing to refuse to release certain information provided by the McDonalds to the ad hoc group, including the actual identity of the McDonalds delegation (although it appears to include a former member of the ACMSF). HUSH have recently complained to the Information Commissioner with regard to the failure to provide this outstanding information.

Following HUSH's complaint, the FSA have also now agreed to put the ad hoc groups recommendations out to a public consultation. While this is to be welcomed, HUSH consider that the refusal of the FSA to disclose all of the relevant information considered by the ad hoc group, including the unpublished scientific reports, severely limits HUSH's ability to meaningfully respond to the consultation.

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