Hundreds of millions of pounds worth of chilled food could be dumped each year under proposed new guidance by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on vacuum (VP) and modified atmosphere packed (MAP) chilled foods, claimed the Chilled Food Association (CFA).
Under the draft guidance, the shelf-life of chilled products stored at 5-8°C would be reduced from 10 days to five because of what the FSA sees as an increased risk of bacterial growth at those temperatures. Products maintained below 5°C would still have a shelf-life of 10 days.
The FSA is particularly worried about the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can lead to botulism, a frequently fatal food poisoning. Because Clostridium botulinum grows in oxygen-free environments, VP and MAP products are more at risk than those using other packaging, said the FSA.
The CFA's secretary general Kaarin Goodburn said that in many cases firms could not guarantee a maximum 5°C throughout the chilled chain and that they would therefore be forced to halve the shelf-life of products. Many products would not be sold in time, she said.
"If you are looking at the market for chilled prepared meals being £1.5bn, up to a third of this could be lost as waste," said Goodburn. Imported products would be particularly affected, she said.
The CFA has drawn together organisations, including the British Retail Consortium, to press the FSA to support the 10-day shelf-life rule rather than introduce its own UK guidance. "We have good evidence that the 10-day rule has sufficient safety and that when it is applied it works," said Goodburn. She criticised the FSA for not conducting a regulatory impact assessment.
While the FSA guidance would be only advisory, Goodburn said that if published it was likely to become recognised by bodies such as the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services. "Guidance is not law but it is very powerful," she said.