A scary development at the Consumers' Association, warns Michael Gottlieb.
I have been an avid reader of Which? magazine for more than 30 years. It has offered impartial advice, remained doggedly incorruptible in the face of pressure from manufacturers, and has been a great campaigner for stringent standards on consumer issues. It has refused advertising in its magazine and has historically not allowed anyone to use the Which? endorsement for commercial gain. Very laudable.
But something is up in the House of Which?.
The tone of the business has become much more aggressively commercial in the past few years. For instance, on its own Web site (Which.net), it now openly endorses Web-based virtual shops selling all manner of consumer goods.
Incredibly, the shops are uniquely permitted to refer to Which? magazine's own "best buy" recommendations. When I asked its press office for the criteria used for selecting these particular shops over others, it didn't elaborate other than to say it "applied strict standards".
While Which? may not necessarily make money from this relationship, it nevertheless commercially benefits the organisation and casts a cloud over its claim to impartiality.
Not our concern, you may think. But commercialism is not attractive in a consumer-advocate organisation, because it can lead to cutting corners.
For instance, in July it issued a press release, followed by an article in September's Which? pointing out the "fact" that "half of all restaurants fail inspections carried out by EHOs". It surveyed 10 restaurants and found "serious" hygiene problems in half. That's five restaurants - bravo!
On such slim evidence, it decided to launch its "Fit to eat" campaign which advocates (a) licensing all restaurants and food premises and (b) naming and shaming restaurants by publishing EHO inspection scores.
Let's look closer. "Half of all restaurants fail inspections by EHOs"? Are half the UK's restaurants really unfit to eat in? "Fail"? An unfortunate use of the word, because when EHOs "fail" restaurants they usually close them down. In any case, no restaurant has ever, to my knowledge, achieved a perfect EHO score. "Licensing restaurants"? The last thing our industry needs is yet more regulation. "Naming and shaming" by publishing a restaurant's hygiene scores? Either a restaurant is safe to eat in or it's not - we don't need more bureaucracy.
A campaign based on a tiny sample of just 10 restaurants is not credible. Which? freely admits that there is not enough evidence to show which part of the food chain is responsible for the reported massive increases in food poisoning. So why pick on us?
We must not allow ourselves to be slandered and brought low by this shameless publicity gimmick.
Michael Gottlieb is president of the Restaurant Association and proprietor of Café Spice restaurants and Pencom (Service That Sells) UK