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  • Flipping crazy

    Posted on August 11th, 2009 admin No comments


    Who would have thought that the Freedom of Information Act would need to be used to find out how best to cook a burger? But that’s what has happened.

    The Information Commissioner has ordered the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to disclose the details of a slide used in a presentation by a US fast food chain (I wonder who this might be?) as to how it cooks its burgers.

    All the information centres on an investigation by the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) into the issue of cooking burgers safely.

    In June 2004 the FSA sought the advice of the ACMSF on the UK’s existing guidance on the safe cooking time and temperature for burgers. This followed a suggestion from the US fast food company to the FSA that this guidance recommended cooking conditions that were more stringent than was necessary. The company believed that this led to overcooking and deterioration in the quality of some of its products.

    In September 2004 the ACMSF set up an ad hoc group to review the advice issued by the Chief Medical Officer. Amongst the evidence it considered was a presentation from the US fast food company on the controls it used to ensure the safety of burgers from raw materials through to consumption. It provided data on the effectiveness of the regime in the US which differed from that in the UK.

    When the applicant asked for the material considered by the ACMSF and the material submitted to it by the US fast food chain some of it was refused. The FSA claimed the information was exempt from disclosure because it was subject to S.22 (Intended for future publication), S.35(Formulation of Government Policy), S.40 (Personal Information) and S.41 (Information Provided in Confidence).

    During the course of the three-year saga, the initial request was made in April 2006, much of the disputed information was passed to the applicant. However, the contents of one slide used during a presentation were still disputed. According to the FSA the slide was subject to S.41 (Information Provided in Confidence) and S.43 (Commercial Interests).

    The Information Commissioner could not disclose what was in this slide but he ruled that neither exemption was engaged. On S.43 argument he said the risk of prejudice could not be said to be a “real and significant risk to the company”. Similarly he dismissed the S.41 argument on the same basis that the information was not subject to the exemption as the company would not suffer “detriment” if it were released.

    The Commissioner also covered public interest arguments for both exemptions – although not needed as he ruled neither were engaged – and ruled that had the exemptions been engaged then the public interest would still have been in favour of releasing the information.

     He also criticised the FSA for the way it released information in a piecemeal manner and that it should have “taken more care in the initial application of exemptions”. He also said the use of S.22 (Intended for Future Publication) was used incorrectly. Although the documents were disclosed to the applicant before they were published they were not released to a wider audience for two years. He said: “I am concerned that the public authority should make sure that before applying the exemption in future that it ascertains that there is a definite intention to publish the relevant information within a realistic and reasonably short timeframe from the point at which the request has been made.”

    A full copy of the decision notice can be found by clicking [here].

    I have asked the FSA for the name of the US fast food chain and a copy of the slide. You can see the request, and hopefully the response, by clicking [here].

    12th August, 2009: I have been informed that the US fast food chain in question is McDonalds (fancy that!) and the organisation requesting the information was an e-Coli sufferers’ support group called HUSH. You can find out more here [link] .

    17th August, 2009: The FSA got back to me on WhatDoTheyKnow [link] to confirm the fast food chain is McDonalds but that they are considering the Information Commissioner’s decision and if they don’t appeal the case they will let me have the slide - but I’ll have to wait until they make their mind up.