Stephen Jardine: Chicken farmers must clean up act

Battery hens are pictured in a chicken shed. Picture: Getty
Battery hens are pictured in a chicken shed. Picture: Getty
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WHEN it comes to food scares, I usually have one simple piece of advice: ignore them. Down the years everything from butter to bacon has been branded bad for us until another piece of research comes along and decides it is actually quite the opposite.

Even last year’s horse-meat scandal was more about fraud in the food chain than any risk to public health.

But the news this week that most supermarket chicken is still contaminated with campylobacter requires a special response.

The scale of the problem was revealed in a survey for the Food Standards Agency which showed 
59 per cent of raw chicken bought at supermarkets contained the potentially deadly bacteria, with 16 per cent heavily contaminated.

Campylobacter is the most common form of food poisoning in the UK, affecting more than a quarter of a million people every year. I contracted it ten years ago from a chicken sandwich in an Edinburgh café that deserved to and thankfully has gone bust. After a full week of sickness and crippling stomach cramps, I’d lost a stone in weight along with any desire to eat a chicken sandwich ever again.

Like most people I recovered, but not everyone is so lucky. Every year up to ten people die in the UK from campylobacter.

Given that, you might expect news that the majority of supermarket chickens are contaminated with the bug would provoke immediate action. But you’d be disappointed.

After a decade of trying to get the poultry industry to clean up its act, the Food Standards Agency had promised to name and shame the worst offenders in the first quarter of its year-long survey. However, pressure from the industry has led the FSA to back down although they do promise to point the finger when more results are available.

That is simply not good enough. More than 800 million chickens are raised and killed in the UK every year. It’s big business and when things go wrong on that scale, food hygiene problems spread easily.

But the poultry industry have been warned for years to clean up their act and the new survey reflects their failure to do so. It shouldn’t be up to them when details are released.

The public are left trying to find small poultry producers they can trust or cooking supermarket chickens to a cinder to ensure they are safe.

Last week, FSA chief executive Catherine Brown said: “There is still a lot more to be done by all elements of the supply chain to ensure that consumers can be confident in the food they buy.”

Action will only come when culprits are named and shamed, forcing them to act tough with suppliers to protect their market share. Then, and only then, will things really start to change.