Attention UK grocery store shoppers: now is not a great time to buy fresh, raw chicken.
According to a report published last month by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), eight out of ten fresh chickens purchased at UK supermarkets were infected with the food poisoning bug campylobacter, a serious strain of bacteria that causes cramping, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and in some instances can be fatal. Worst of all, it appears the FSA, a government agency, has known about the problem for some time and has been complicit in protecting individual supermarket chains by delaying the release of its report in response to a plea from a former head of Tesco, the popular supermarket chain that is the second-largest retailer in the world.
An article published last week in The Guardian revealed that Tim Smith, a former regulator at the FSA who transitioned directly from his role there to become a technical director at Tesco, contacted his former employer over the summer to request that it not publish results showing which supermarkets had the worst incidences of infected chicken. And apparently, the FSA listened: the report's preliminary findings were due to be published in June but were delayed until November. That's when consumers in the UK discovered that 64 percent of Tesco chicken was infected with the bug. And the FSA's apparent unwillingness to clean up the UK's food industry has infuriated some Brits.
One of those people who has been the most vocal is Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at London's City University who has served as a food advisor to the UK departments of health and the environment. After last month's campylobacter results were finally published, Lang penned a scathing Guardian op-ed calling for the British public to stop buying poultry until the levels of contamination are adequately addressed.
"The results of official tests of retail chicken for campylobacter contamination are really shocking," Lang writes. "I don't use the word lightly."
The FSA was formed 14 years ago as a response to massive salmonella scares in the UK in the 80s and 90s, Lang writes. Its job was to clean up the UK food industry as a whole, with a focus on the meat industry, and earn back the public's trust in the food supply. But according to Lang, the new campylobacter results show that the FSA has failed.
"Salmonella has come down and our problem now is campylobacter; but one form of bad news fading only to be replaced by new bad news is hardly progress," he writes.
Lang takes the government to task for failing to carry out the very expensive, but very necessary, modifications to food production and sales that are required to keep the British public safe.
"To the politicians of all hues, and to the government in particular, I have this to say: when will you act on this outrageous situation?"
For its part, the British government denies that it was influenced in any way by Tim Smith's request to suppress the results of the FSA's survey of chicken. UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt claims that the delay in publishing was a result of an insufficient sample size of supermarkets that "may have given a false picture of the situation across the country."
Lang isn't buying it.
"Dear British public, be outraged, act, withhold your money until you can have confidence in what you consume," he writes.
Chicken's kind of bland, anyway. Maybe the contamination crisis is the perfect excuse to cook up a big, juicy steak tonight.