UK Health Secretary admits call from Tesco boss over chicken Campylobacter tests

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt (right), has admitted that a Tesco director who is also a former head of the Food Standards Agency contacted the government this summer to argue against FSA plans to publish food poisoning contamination rates for chicken in each supermarket chain.

jeremy.huntThe Guardian reports that the first set of results naming retailers over contamination was supposed to be published in June, but after pressure from other government departments, the FSA backed down. It only put out results in anonymized form in August. When it published individual supermarket results in November, they revealed that, on average, 70% of fresh retail chicken was contaminated with the potentially lethal Campylobacter bug. Campylobacter contamination was found in 64% of Tesco chicken.

Hunt has now acknowledged that Tim Smith, who went directly from his role as regulator at the FSA to a post as technical director of Tesco, requested a telephone meeting in June with one of the health department’s most senior civil servants to discuss the FSA results.

The Department of Health (DoH) refused to answer the Guardian’s requests for information about the incident last month but, responding to a formal letter from the Labour shadow ministerial team, Hunt has now agreed that Smith questioned the naming of individual retailers and the value of publishing the results.

Hunt also acknowledges that Smith’s view were passed by DH to the FSA and the Cabinet Office. He denies, however, that there was any improper influence on the FSA decision. “These communications in no way influenced the decision to delay publication of the names of the retailers,” he wrote. The delay in publishing the names arose because the sample size was deemed insufficiently robust “and may have given a false picture of the situation across the country”, he said.

chickenThe shadow environment secretary, Maria Eagle, accused the government of complacency over the issue. She said: “Consumers will be appalled to learn that ministers have repeatedly failed to take any action to tackle the alarming levels of campylobacter in supermarket chicken. After clearly inappropriate lobbying of the government, the Food Standards Agency decided not to name and shame the retailer[s] alongside levels of campylobacter contamination.

“Instead of being the champion of the consumer, the government is acting as the mouthpiece of the food poisoners.”

Smith’s move from the regulator to a supermarket he had been regulating in October 2012 was approved by the prime minister after guidance from the advisory committee on business appointments (ACOBA), on condition that Smith did not lobby civil servants or ministers on behalf of Tesco for two years.

Tesco is understood to maintain that the contact over campylobacter did not constitute lobbying. A Tesco spokesperson said: “Tim Smith has abided by the restriction agreed with ACOBA on lobbying the government on behalf of Tesco.”