Minister 'mouthpiece for poisoners'
Environment minister George Eustice is acting as a "mouthpiece for food poisoners" over the "scandal" of contaminated poultry, Labour has claimed.
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle warned the 70% rate of fresh shop-bought chicken contaminated by campylobacter is higher than the salmonella infection rate in the 1980s, as she pressed ministers to tackle the "totally unacceptable state of affairs".
After she demanded an answer from Environment Secretary Liz Truss, Ms Eagle branded Mr Eustice complacent over the Government's response to the increase in the food poisoning bug.
She later asked the minister: "When are you going to stop being the mouthpiece of the food poisoners and start being the champion of consumers?"
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) published test results last month which showed a significant increase in the contamination rate, with every major supermarket retailer failing to meet targets to reduce the bug.
It said the cumulative results from the first two quarters of its year-long survey of fresh chickens found 70% tested positive for the presence of campylobacter, up from 59% in August.
Campylobacter is killed by thorough cooking and can be limited by careful hygiene, but it is the most common form of food poisoning in the UK, affecting about 280,000 people a year.
Speaking in the Commons, Ms Eagle told MPs: "(Ms Truss) has ministerial responsibility for food production and processing so it's concerning that yesterday she transferred a question about campylobacter contamination in chicken, which had been on today's order paper, to the Department of Health.
"The Food Standards Agency has said that 70% of chicken on sale in Britain, much of it produced here, is contaminated by campylobacter - that's higher than the salmonella infection rate in poultry in the 1980s.
"What is she doing to tackle this totally unacceptable state of affairs?"
As Mr Eustice rose to answer, Ms Eagle remained on her feet, pointed at Ms Truss and questioned again: "What is she doing?"
Mr Eustice replied: "What I can tell you is there's a project being run by the FSA ... to try and develop a treatment system that would have blast-chilling of poultry to deal with this disease.
"Earlier this year the FSA ran an information campaign to raise awareness among the public of this problem and, as you're aware, the FSA has also recently published information about the incidence of campylobacter in poultry among a range of retailers."
Ms Eagle said Mr Eustice "sounds complacent", adding to the minister: "You've got no plan in dealing with this scandal beyond transferring questions about it to other departments.
"Food poisoning caused by campylobacter contamination in the poultry industry costs our economy and the NHS £900 million in days off work and treatment costs a year.
"It kills an estimated 100 people, it makes 280,000 people ill every year.
"When are you going to stop being the mouthpiece of the food poisoners and start being the champion of consumers?"
Mr Eustice replied: "I simply say to you, as you well know, the FSA is the responsibility of the Department of Health.
"The FSA leads on food safety issues, including campylobacter. It's the FSA that's decided to publish this information and so it is right that the Department of Health should lead on this issue.
"All I would say is I totally reject the notion I have been complacent - within the first week of having this job a year ago I had our chief veterinary officer and deputy chief veterinary officer give me a briefing on the issue."