Marks & Spencer is widening the roll-out of a five-point action plan designed to reduce levels of campylobacter in whole chickens.

The plan has been implemented by M&S with 2 Sisters Food Group – the retailer’s biggest supplier of whole chickens - since the end of September and will be rolled out across the M&S supply chain by the end of the year.

Among the steps are ‘double-bagging’ whole chickens so they can be placed straight into the oven without the need to unwrap and handle the bird. Bonuses will also be paid to farmers who produce campylobacter free-farms (see box-out below).

“We take safety extremely seriously and have introduced innovative measures that ensure the highest standards and make it easy for our customers,” said M&S executive director for food Steve Rowe. “The plan is working and we are committed to playing a leading role in the efforts to reduce levels of campylobacter in the poultry industry.”

2 Sisters Food Group CEO Ranjit Singh said the business was “delighted to be leading the way in partnership with Marks & Spencer on campylobacter reduction”.

The initiative was described as “impressive” by Steve Wearne, policy director at the Food Standards Agency.

“Campylobacter is a serious issue and there is no single solution to the problem,” he added. “I believe the best way to drive down campylobacter levels is by adopting the sort of integrated approach along the food chain  demonstrated by M&S and 2 Sisters.”

Wearne added that he looked forward to seeing the impact of the action plan on the results of the FSA’s ongoing survey into levels of campylobacter in retail chicken. The next set of results will be announced by the agency next week.

M&S’s announcement comes the day after The Co-op Group revealed it would be adopting roast-in-bag packaging on all its whole chickens from January. The retailer said the range -  which is supplied by 2 Sisters -  would support customer food safety by eliminating the need to handle raw chicken, which limited the potential spread of bacteria.

It also follows national media claims this week that supermarkets were knowingly selling campylobacter-contaminated chicken. The British Poultry Council responded by suggesting the stories could mislead consumers as they were based on a small sample of testing, designed to assist members of the Joint Working Group on Campylobacter in their operations.

“As the data is neither comprehensive nor statistically robust, it will not be useful for consumers and risks being misleading,” warned BPC CEO Andrew Large.

The five-point action plan in detail

The five-point M&S action plan has been implemented with 2 Sisters Food Group since the end of September and will be rolled out to the remainder of the M&S supply chain by the end of the year.

Zero thinning

M&S farmers that supply to 2 Sisters Food Group have stopped part-harvesting chickens from flocks through the growing cycle, known in the industry as operating a ‘zero thinning’ policy. This minimises stress, protects the flock’s integrity and improves animal health and welfare. It reduces stress levels amongst chickens and, in turn, levels of campylobacter. This will be rolled out to all M&S farms by the end of the year.

Rapid surface chilling

New technology is in place at 2 Sisters Food Group that rapidly chills whole chickens as they are processed. This reduces campylobacter levels on food production sites. 

Front of pack labelling

Front of pack labelling on all M&S whole chickens is now even clearer. They now carry a large, front-of-pack label that says “Washed and Ready to Cook”. This is in addition to back-of-pack food hygiene information and cooking times.

Double bagging

85% of M&S whole chickens are now ‘double bagged’ which means the chicken can be placed straight into the oven in a bag. The customer doesn’t need to unwrap the product pre-cooking, reducing the risk of cross-contamination in the kitchen.

Farmer bonus scheme

M&S has introduced a bonus scheme for farmers that supply to 2 Sisters Food Group which offers farmers a bonus if they produce campylobacter-free farms. This is in addition to the ongoing M&S incentive programme for high standards of animal welfare on farms.