Asda in the spotlight as FSA publishes campylobacter results

Microscope lab

In the two quarters, 1,995 samples were taken

Asda has been singled out by the Food Standards Agency as having significantly more chickens that are highly contaminated with the food poisoning bug campylobacter than its rivals.

By contrast, Tesco is the only retailer to have significantly fewer highly contaminated birds than the industry average, according to an FSA survey published today.

But no retailer is currently meeting campylobacter reduction targets and a total of 70% of all chickens sold in UK supermarkets are contaminated with campylobacter to some degree.

The FSA said these results – which today named individual retailers for the first time – showed more action was needed to protect consumers from campylobacter, which is the UK’s most common cause of food poisoning.

“These results show that the food industry, especially retailers, need to do more to reduce the amount of campylobacter on fresh chickens,” said FSA policy director Steve Wearne.

Retailers and poultry processors are meant to get the proportion of highly contaminated chickens at the end of the production line down to 10% by the end of 2015, which is equivalent to about 7% or 8% at retail; at the moment, an average of 18% of chickens across all retailers are contaminated, according to the FSA survey.

In Asda, whose chickens are supplied by Faccenda and 2 Sisters, the proportion was 28%, while in Tesco – supplied by 2 Sisters Food Group among others – it was 11%.

The FSA defines ‘highly contaminated’ chickens as those that test positive for campylobacter at a rate of more than 1,000 cfu/g.

The regulator is focusing on highly contaminated chickens as these are more likely to give consumers food poisoning than birds with lower contamination rates.

Asda had the highest prevalence of campylobacter overall, with 78% of 312 samples taken testing positive for some degree of campylobacter, followed by The Co-operative Group with 76%. Morrisons, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s had contamination rates of 69% each, while Marks & Spencer had 67%.

As with highly contaminated birds, Tesco also scored best for overall contamination rates, with 64% of the 607 samples taken from its stores testing positive for campylobacter.


Results by retailer

RetailerNo. of samples% skin samples positive for campylobacter% skin samples >1000 cfu/g campylobacter% packaging samples positive for campylobacter
Asda  312 78 28 12
Co-op  171 73 19 5
M&S  68 67 22 4
Morrisons 179 69 21 9
Sainsbury’s  300 69 14 3
Tesco  607 64 11 3
Waitrose  70 69 16 9
Others*  288 76 25 7
Total  1995 70 18 6

* Lidl, Aldi, Iceland, plus convenience stores, independents, butchers


An Asda spokeswoman said the retailer was “disappointed” with the FSA findings but stressed it was committed to tackling campylobacter. “There is no ‘silver bullet’ to tackle this issue, but along with other retailers, we’re working hard to find a solution,” she said.

“We welcome the transparency of the FSA results and are committed to providing our shoppers with safe, quality food. We have led the industry in packaging innovation and were the first supermarket to launch Roast in the Bag chicken, removing the need to handle raw meat. And we continue to work with our suppliers to ensure that we are doing everything we can to reduce the chances of our customers coming into contact with campylobacter – including investing in trialling a new procedure - SonoSteam - which, if successful, we will roll out across our suppliers. We also continue to offer shoppers helpful advice on how to safely prepare and cook chicken – which will kill off any trace of the bug.”

We welcome the transparency of the FSA results and are committed to providing our shoppers with safe, quality food - Asda

Faccenda MD Andy Dawkins said reducing campylobacter was a top priority for Faccenda, as demonstrated by its decision to invest in the SonoSteam trial. “We are demonstrating our commitment by investing in what we believe are necessary, impactful ways of tackling this issue. The recent first half year campylobacter retail survey results further reinforce our decision to invest across our supply chain to address this food safety challenge, which is an issue faced by all poultry producers.”

He also stressed Faccenda’s test results were in line with other processors’. ”While we only have access to the Faccenda Foods results, we understand that they are in line with those of a number of other UK slaughter houses. However, we recognise our responsibilities and want to improve further and that is why we have invested significant time and money in a factory intervention SonoSteam, which will start full factory trials in December. We continue to be active members of the joint working group on campylobacter where a number of initiatives are being explored and all producers in the group have agreed to share outcomes of their respective initiatives.”

The results published by the FSA today reflect campylobacter rates of chickens tested over the past six months. Wearne acknowledged some more recent improvements made to supply chains – such as the Asda/Faccenda SonoSteam trial – may not yet be reflected in the results but said such interventions should lead to better performances in future surveys.

Pressed why he thought Asda had a particularly high rate of highly contaminated chickens and why Tesco’s was much lower, Wearne would not be drawn but said it was up to individual retailers to work with their suppliers on their specifications and to establish what interventions were needed to reduce campylobacter rates.

Wearne said the results showed all the retailers needed to do more to get a grip on campylobacter, which is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. “At the moment, the message for consumers is: wherever you buy your chicken, it may have campylobacter. We are looking for industry to take action.”

He highlighted M&S’s five-point plan with 2 Sisters Food Group to tackle campylobacter through a range of interventions on farm, at processing stage and at retail, as a best practice example of the kinds of actions retailers should be taking.

Consumers can render contaminated chicken safe by handling and cooking it properly, and the FSA is stressing good hygiene practices in its consumer communications.

But Wearne said it was not reasonable to expect consumers to shoulder most of the burden in ensuring chicken was safe, and industry needed to play its part too.

Also see: The industry responds to FSA results