There’s an old saying that goes: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” There was never a more appropriate turn of phrase to use when you look at the recent press coverage around alleged failings in the poultry industry and campylobacter in chicken.
Let me set out the realities of where we are today as an industry. Chicken is now the UK’s favourite protein and all my colleagues take great pride in what they do. So they should. They work really hard producing high-welfare British chicken in the most highly regulated food environment in the world.
So when newspapers talk of ‘surprise dawn audits,’ they fail to mention we have something like 2,000 audits at our factories each year, both announced and unannounced, whether visits from our customers, the FSA, Defra or the BRC. And this doesn’t even include our own audits. Surprise audit? No – it’s standard practice.
“My team are doing more than any other business to tackle it”
We welcomed the FSA’s visits to two of our factories last week, and the outcomes of the audits were positive. However, we must not be complacent. Our continual improvement programme is heavily focused on quality and food safety. Every day, every week, every month, we’re constantly working with customers to improve process and consistency.
Which brings me to campylobacter. While this is something the industry needs to address, the first crucial point is this – when it’s present, cooking at just 70C for two minutes kills it.
Campylobacter is a worldwide issue. The UK actually ranks quite low in infection rates, at about the same as the EU average (around 55 cases per 100,000 population) and below a number of countries in Europe and further afield. So it is not specific to the UK, but we are taking the lead in tackling it. In fact, my team are doing more than any other business, with initiatives designed to reduce the number of cases.
Last year, we launched the UK’s biggest ever one-year independent study into campylobacter, which will cost £6m and collect data from 124 million birds at hundreds of our farms, a study that has been praised as sector-leading by the FSA.
That recognition comes because of our triple-pronged approach. We’re introducing a no-thinning trial of bird flocks, a farmer incentive scheme and rapid surface chilling of processed birds. We’re even introducing ‘bird watch’ – CCTV specially designed to monitor the behaviour of our flocks. This isn’t strictly connected to campylobacter, but we’re keen to examine how we can improve the environmental enrichment for birds even further.
All this activity will produce valuable data we can use to tackle the issue once and for all. And because this is an issue for everyone producing poultry, we will make that data available to all the industry next year.
So as the summer kicks in and barbecues get fired up, it’s worth remembering that the chickens 2 Sisters will be providing are 100% British, reared to the highest welfare standards, and come from a national regulatory environment that’s the best on the planet.
Ranjit Singh is CEO of 2 Sisters Food Group