As Head of Food Safety at Sainsbury's, the most important part of my job is to ensure that our food meets the highest standards of safety. It goes without saying that as one of Britain’s leading retailers, our customers' health and safety is of paramount importance to us.
Chicken is one of Britain’s most loved and versatile meats, enjoyed by millions of our customers every week. We want our customers to continue to cook and enjoy chicken at home, but as with all raw meats sold for cooking at home, raw chicken can carry some risk.
One of those risks comes from Campylobacter, a commonly occurring bacterium found on chicken and which can cause food poisoning if chicken isn’t prepared and cooked properly.
From my perspective, there are two key routes that can help eradicate the risk of Campylobacter. We need to take action within our supply chain to ensure the risk is minimised before the chicken reaches our customers’ homes and we need to help customers understand what they can do themselves to prevent it, by preparing and cooking chicken properly.
That’s why we’re outlining our Safe Chicken Strategy – to protect customers from Campylobacter at every stage from farm to fork.
The main elements of our strategy are as follows:
It's definitely a challenge - but we are working to introduce interventions at all stages of the chicken process, involving work at the chicken farms which supply us, our processing factories, where the chicken is prepared for eating and in the home – helping our customers to prepare chicken safely.
I’ve produced an infographic to help guide you through the process, including the importance of not washing chicken and the pivotal role that proper cooking plays in killing campylobacter. At each stage, I’ve highlighted some of the methods we’ve been testing. Where we see the greatest benefit to our customers, we will invest. In doing so, we aim to drive even lower levels of campylobacter.
On the Farm:
Sainsbury's works very closely with farmers, and we have a long established Chicken Development Group where our farmers share best practice methods, including sharing ideas on controlling Campylobacter - and we will continue to use our direct interaction with our farmers and our processors to develop and introduce improvements that help prevent contamination of flocks.
It is natural for all animals to carry bacteria in the gut, but we want to maximise the good ones and minimise the bad ones. Understanding how Campylobacter affects the chicken, exploring whether different breeds are more resistant or if different growing methods result in lower colonisation of the bird are all important research challenges that will help us to control Campylobacter in the long term.
We are making huge investments within all parts of the chicken farm and chicken sheds such as advanced entry systems to prevent contamination coming in, new ways of heating sheds to keep the litter dry (that in turn stops the bacteria developing) and even looking at whether certain food is better at helping the chicken develop healthy bacteria in the gut.
We are also examining measures to reduce Campylobacter in chicken processing factories run by our suppliers – who are also actively looking at ways to fully optimise their processes to get the best reduction of bacteria.
Rapid Surface Chilling is one option. Campylobacter is not well suited to very cold temperatures and if a blast of super-chilled air or water is applied to the bird it can reduce the numbers of bacteria on the surface. This is known as ‘rapid surface’ or ‘blast surface’ chilling which has to be done quickly so that the chicken doesn't freeze.
Hot Washing is one of the interventions that’s proven to be successful. Bacteria like Campylobacter don't like hot temperatures, which is why proper cooking is such a great means of control. We put the chickens under very short spurs of hot water to kill bacteria but avoid cooking it and preserve great taste.
Chicken packaging also plays an important role in food safety, as juices from raw chicken can contaminate other food – particularly important for when you’re bringing your shopping home in bags.
Our suppliers have worked hard to find better ‘no leak’ packaging materials that give an improved seal, making our packaging virtually leak proof and we are exploring ways of making our packaging even safer.
We have also introduced an extended range of pre-prepared roast in the bag chickens for those customers who want the added convenience.
All of our chickens are also packed in a high oxygen atmosphere that not only keeps the chicken fresher for longer, but is also believed to cause Campylobacter levels to decline further, after the chicken has been packed.
In the home:
What customers do with their chicken once they get it home is also a vital part of the process and we do all we can to help.
We were the first retailer to put food safety advice on our products, reinforcing the importance of keeping raw chicken separate to cooked foods, and crucially indicating that raw chicken should not be washed, as the water can splash onto surfaces and other food products, spreading the bacteria. We also have this advice on our website: https://livewellforless.sainsburys.co.uk/kitchen-safety-guide/
So what more can we do? We monitor our progress stringently, testing our chickens via independent accredited laboratories which provides us with a clear measure of how we are doing.
Our commitment to reducing the levels of Campylobacter on chicken is a long term, continuous one and one which we do not feel is best suited to short term goals and deadlines and as a result, we also believe this shouldn't be limited to the FSA targets. We are taking a much longer term view of this issue and always want to be better than the industry average on Campylobacter. To illustrate our progress, we have published the results of our testing that can be found here.
It is my clear view that, there is no single intervention that can tackle the challenge presented by Campylobacter. Our suppliers have already introduced measures that are starting to show significant progress, but we are committed to reducing Campylobacter levels further. Research is the key to unlocking future strategies, providing new insight on bacteria control – and we will continue all the measures described above to tackle Campylobacter at every stage, sharing our findings with the industry to help tackle the problem together.