Poultry supply chain must embrace change if it is to be trusted by consumers

Poultry supply chain must embrace change if it is to be trusted by consumers

The UK's Food Standards Agency has issued the results of its first set of quarterly campylobacter tests, part of a year-long study into the prevalence of the bacteria in the UK poultry supply. The results reveal that around three-fifths of chicken sold in UK supermarkets are contaminated with the bacteria and the regulator has conceded that more must be done to win over consumer trust. After a personal brush with the issue, having found offal in pre-packed supermarket chicken, Katy Askew would strongly concur.

The Food Standards Agency has indicated that there is "more to be done" if the poultry industry is to win the trust of UK consumers.

Releasing the results of its first set of campylobacter tests yesterday (5 August) the food safety regulator said that the bacteria was found in 59% of fresh chickens. Campylobacter contamination was detected on the outside of 4% of packages, the FSA added.

"The low levels of contamination found on packaging... potentially indicate the effectiveness of the leak-proof packaging for poultry introduced by most retailers," FSA chief executive Catherine Brown commented. Brown added that this helps reduce the risk of "cross contamination".

However, she conceded that further work is needed if the poultry industry is to win over consumer trust. "There is still a lot more to be done by all elements of the supply chain to ensure consumers can be confident of the food they buy."

According to Brown, the chicken supply chain is looking at improved biosecurity on farms, rapid surface chilling and anti-microbial washes.

Campylobacter first hit the headlines last month, when The Guardian newspaper alleged that poultry suppliers including 2 Sisters Food Group flout hygiene regulations. The publication cited incidents such as a breakdown in 2 Sisters machinery that caused poultry guts to pile up on the factory floor.

A subsequent FSA safety audit passed 2 Sisters' plants, finding that The Guardian's evidence refered to three specific incidents that were "addressed in an appropriate manner by the business at the time and did not present a food safety risk". 

However, I was left with some significant reservations after a personal brush with this story.

A few weeks ago, I purchased pre-packaged chicken from Sainsbury's that was supplied to the supermarket by 2 Sisters. When I opened the pack, I found it also included a chicken liver and what looked (and smelled) like some partially digested gut contents.

This kind of incident hardly instills confidence in the reliability of the chicken supply chain. As an addendum to the FSA's "to do" list of action that should be taken by the sector, I would suggest getting the guts out of packs of chicken must surely be the number one priority.

I would also like to suggest a second point of action. If consumers are coming across this kind of thing, as I did, then retailers should really go out of their way to train staff at a store level on how to deal with such complaints.

When the product was returned, the perfectly pleasant girl at customer services failed completely to understand the gravity of the situation. The fresh meat manager was unavailable. Eventually, such a stink was kicked up that the store manager deigned to come and deal with the complaint. His attitude was, it has to be said, very unimpressive.

A letter from head office saying Sainsbury's was "working with" 2 Sisters to resolve any issues was briefly waved around. Will this incident be reported to anyone? No real answer given. The point was pushed - there is OFFAL in my chicken! - and some vague reassurances that the sample will be dealt with appropriately were provided alongside a five pound voucher - because obviously the complaint boiled down to the consumer wanting something for nothing.

How can consumers trust their chicken supply if, one, offal is actually turning up in packs of chicken and, two, front line retail staff are so poorly equipped to deal with the issue that they treat consumers like a nuisance rather than offering reassurance?

I for one have made the switch to my local butcher.