Food safety chief delayed report on adulterated water

 

SENIOR EXECUTIVES of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) sought to soften a report showing high levels of contamination of bottled waters before its publication, according to documentation released under freedom of information legislation.

The authority’s chief executive, Dr John O’Brien, delayed publication of the report, leading staff to conclude it had been placed “on the back burner”, the documents obtained by The Irish Timesshow.

Dr O’Brien argued that the report needed scientific revision and independent peer review.

However, his deputy, Alan Reilly, expressed concern about the delay and pointed out that there had been widespread consultation during the drafting of the report.

A draft of the report, which showed that 1 per cent of bottled water tested in the last four months of 2007 contained E.coli, an indicator of faecal contamination, and 6.3 per cent contained coliforms, was leaked last November. The failure of the authority to name the firms producing the adulterated water was heavily criticised.

The correspondence shows that Dr O’Brien alerted the Beverage Council of Ireland (BCI), which represents bottled water manufacturers, about the findings of the report before it was published and undertook to provide the BCI and employers’ group Ibec with a copy before it was published.

Another decision taken at senior level was to put the report on the authority’s website without issuing a press release, leading its press officer to warn that it might seem the FSAI was trying to “bury” the report.

The authority’s approach contrasts with concerns expressed by public health specialists about its response to the test results. An environmental health specialist in Co Meath complained that a draft of the report did not state that some of the bottled waters were “unfit for human consumption”.

Another health specialist in the northeast disagreed completely with the FSAI’s advice that no product recall was needed for certain levels of E.coli contamination. “It is totally misleading to the public to apply a lower standard to bottled water than to tap water.”

Extensive consultation took place within the FSAI and with environmental health officers between January and September 2008 as the report was compiled. By the end of September, it was ready for approval and was sent to FSAI directors the following month.

Although deputy director Alan Reilly said he was “happy” for the report to be published, Dr O’Brien told staff he could not support publication of the report “in its present form” and cited scientific and legal issues calling for revisions and corrections.

He was supported by FSAI director of consumer protection Dr Brian Redahan, who said in an e-mail to Dr O’Brien that industry had “legitimate” concerns about the damage the report could do. The report was “unduly disproportionate” in its attribution of the risks to public health and the authority had an obligation not to create undue anxiety in the minds of the public.

Dr O’Brien produced a six-page commentary suggesting numerous changes to the report. He expressed reservations about the used of the word “safety” in the title and suggested instead it refer to the “microbiological quality” of bottled waters.

A reference to some waters being “considered unsafe for human consumption” overstated the risk, he said. It was more correct to say they were not fit or unsuitable for consumption.

One leading bottler expressed concern about companies being named in the report, and claimed the report would have an adverse impact if it were published in summer, when sales of bottled water peaked. In the event, the report was published last December.

Another manufacturer threatened legal action if the authority named it publicly with notice. Its managing director said it has “very serious concerns” about the validity of the single negative test result which forced the recall of its product.

The FSAI refused to release under the FOI Act the names of the shops from which the contaminated bottled water was withdrawn or the names of the companies which manufactured it.