• Two-thirds of fresh retail chicken in UK contaminated with campylobacter
• Guardian findings prompt investigations at three major supermarkets
• Government shelves plans to name and shame suppliers
Food poisoning scandal: how chicken spreads campylobacter
Three of the UK’s leading supermarkets have launched emergency investigations into their chicken supplies after a Guardian investigation uncovered a catalogue of alleged hygiene failings in the poultry industry.
Undercover footage, photographic evidence and information from whistleblowers has revealed how strict industry hygiene standards to prevent the contamination of chicken with the potentially deadly campylobacter bug can be flouted on the factory floor and on farms.
Specific incidents identified in the last month include a factory floor flooded with chickens guts in which the bacteria can flourish, carcasses coming into contact with workers’ boots then returned to the production line and other poor practices involving points in the production chain that increase the risk of its spread.
The evidence prompted Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer to launch emergency investigations into their chicken sources over the last week.
The concern centres on the bacteria campylobacter, which at the last count was present in two-thirds of British fresh chicken sold in the UK. Although the bug is killed by thorough cooking, around 280,000 people in the UK are currently made ill each year by it and 100 people are thought to die. Contamination rates are known to have increased in the past decade.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA), however, decided on Wednesday to shelve a promise to name and shame supermarkets and processors for their campylobacter rates. The climbdown comes after “push-back” from industry and interventions from government departments.
One source said they had been told Number 10 had raised concerns about the communication of the results, fearing that they could provoke a food scare similar to that triggered when the former Conservative minister Edwina Currie warned that most of British eggs were contaminated with salmonella in 1988.
The Guardian’s five-month investigation uncovered a series of alleged hygiene failings in the chicken industry.
The allegations have been made against two of the largest UK poultry processors, 2 Sisters Food Group and Faccenda. They relate to two factories owned by 2 Sisters that supply fresh chicken and chicken for ready meals to Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, M&S, KFC and to farms and an abattoir owned by Faccenda, which supplies Asda and Nando’s.
The allegations are that:
• Chickens which fall on to the floor have repeatedly been put back on to the production line at two 2 Sisters sites. They company denies this ever happens and says all chicken from the floor is correctly disposed of as waste.
• Breakdowns led to high-risk material – feathers, guts and offal – piling up for hours on separate occasions while production continued at a 2 Sisters factory in Wales. The company says they did not stop the line because they had to consider the welfare of chickens waiting in crates to be killed.
• Another breakdown led to the water in scald tanks at the same site not being cleaned for three days, so that around 250,000 birds passed through dirty water after slaughter. The company says this was an isolated incident that lasted only one day, bacteria counts were checked and were acceptable.
• According to a whistleblower chicken catcher, biosecurity rules to stop the spread of campylobacter in chicken sheds at Faccenda were regularly ignored by workers when he was employed there. Faccenda says this is not true and it has invested heavily in a highly trained and motivated workforce.
Campylobacter contamination has plagued the poultry industry for more than a decade and has got worse in that time.
The FSA ordered new tests for campylobacter amid worries that there had been no improvements in rates. Results were due in June, and as recently as March the FSA’s chief executive, Catherine Brown, publicly vowed to press ahead with “steely determination” despite push-back from industry.
On Wednesday, however, Brown asked the FSA board to reverse the previous decision to publish campylobacter results for named supermarkets and processors every quarter. The board heard that there were now concerns, not raised previously, that the sample size for one quarter’s data was insufficiently large to be statistically robust.
Brown insisted that the threat of exposing campylobacter results had made supermarkets and chicken processors take notice of the FSA’s concerns about contamination for the first time, but said the industry had not so far made the changes in production needed to reduce campylobacter on any scale.
“Time is upon us for everyone to work out how they are going to stump up money to make the interventions on [the production] line,” she told the meeting.
The eight members of the board were divided on the proposals, leaving the chairman and former president of the National Farmers’ Union, Tim Bennett, to use his casting vote to quash the plans to name companies for the moment. They are looking at separate proposals to urgently increase the testing of retail chicken.
Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, said ahead of the board meeting: “Other government departments have reflected to us concerns which are the same as those we’ve heard directly from retailers and producers. We’re not letting the industry off the hook. We’ll publish all the names when we’ve completed [the survey] next summer.
“If we publish the results piecemeal, other people might draw unwarranted conclusions from partial data and we don’t want consumers being misled or confused.”
Erik Millstone, a food safety professor at Sussex University, condemned the board’s decision. “In the last few years the Food Standards Agency has been under a great deal of pressure from the government and the food industry to ensure that it only provides reassuring messages, and especially that it should say nothing that could provoke any ‘food scares’,” he said. “But the FSA was created to protect consumers, not to protect the food industry, or to give ministers a quiet time. This decision shows that its independence is entirely illusory.”
The executive director of Which?, Richard Lloyd, said: “The Guardian’s investigation raises serious concerns. Tackling campylobacter has to become a much bigger priority for supermarkets and their suppliers as it is responsible for thousands of cases of food poisoning and the deaths of 100 people every year. It’s therefore disappointing that the FSA has gone back on its commitment to publish in full the quarterly data on the levels of campylobacter in supermarket chickens, when it is clearly in the public interest to do so. The FSA must put consumers first and operate more transparently than this.”
The campylobacter story
Although the public are mostly unaware of it, the scale of campylobacter contamination and the number of people it makes ill each year have been well-known among industry bosses, retail directors and government officials for more than a decade. The annual cost to the economy is a staggering £900m, making a significant dent in the £3.3bn the poultry industry claims to contribute to Britain’s GDP. Up to 80% of campylobacter infections are attributable to contaminated poultry.
The points in the chicken production chain at which contamination occurs are clearly understood, but during the past decade the picture has got worse. In 2003 the FSA reported that 56% of chicken on sale was infected. By 2008 that had increased to 65%.
The decision over whether to name and shame the industry is a vexed one. The stakes are high – consumers are likely to shun poultry in supermarkets with the worst scores. Cleaning up would require money, experts say, and poultry firms and retailers are locked in to an economic structure of their own making in their race to produce the cheapest possible chicken.
What Would Happen If Everyone In The World Gave Up Meat
The meat industry is one of the top contributors to climate change, directly and indirectly producing about 14.5 percent of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and global meat consumption is on the rise.
People generally like eating meat—when poor people start making more money, they almost invariably start buying more meat.
As the population grows and eats more animal products, the consequences for climate change, pollution, and land use could be catastrophic.
Attempts to reduce meat consumption usually focus on baby steps—Meatless Monday and “vegan before 6,” passable fake chicken, and in vitro burgers.
If the world is going to eat less meat, it’s going to have to be coaxed and cajoled into doing it, according to conventional wisdom.
But what if the convincing were the easy part? Suppose everyone in the world voluntarily stopped eating meat, en masse. I know it’s not actually going to happen.
But the best-case scenario from a climate perspective would be if all 7 billion of us woke up one day and realized that PETA was right all along. If this collective change of spirit came to pass, like Peter Singer’s dearest fantasy come true, what would the ramifications be?
At least one research team has run the numbers on what global veganism would mean for the planet. In 2009 researchers from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency published their projections of the greenhouse gas consequences if humanity came to eat less meat, no meat, or no animal products at all.
The researchers predicted that universal veganism would reduce agriculture-related carbon emissions by 17 percent, methane emissions by 24 percent, and nitrous oxide emissions by 21 percent by 2050.
Universal vegetarianism would result in similarly impressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, the Dutch researchers found that worldwide vegetarianism or veganism would achieve these gains at a much lower cost than a purely energy-focused intervention involving carbon taxes and renewable energy technology.
The upshot: Universal eschewal of meat wouldn’t single-handedly stave off global warming, but it would go a long way toward mitigating climate change.
The Dutch researchers didn’t take into account what else might happen if everyone gave up meat. “In this scenario study we have ignored possible socio-economic implications such as the effect of health changes on GDP and population numbers,” wrote Elke Stehfest and her colleagues.
“We have not analyzed the agro-economic consequences of the dietary changes and its implications; such consequences might not only involve transition costs, but also impacts on land prices. The costs that are associated with this transition might obviously offset some of the gains discussed here.”
Indeed. If the world actually did collectively go vegetarian or vegan over the course of a decade or two, it’s reasonable to think the economy would tank.
According to “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the influential 2006 U.N. report about meat’s devastating environmental effects, livestock production accounts for 1.4 percent of the world’s total GDP.
The production and sale of animal products account for 1.3 billion people’s jobs, and 987 million of those people are poor. If demand for meat were to disappear overnight, those people’s livelihoods would disappear, and they would have to find new ways of making money.
Now, some of them—like the industrial farmers who grow the corn that currently goes to feed animals on factory farms—would be in a position to adapt by shifting to in-demand plant-based food production.
Others, namely the “huge number of people involved in livestock for lack of an alternative, particularly in Africa and Asia,” would probably be out of luck. (Things would be better for the global poor involved in the livestock trade if everyone continued to consume other animal products, such as eggs, milk, and wool, than if everyone decided to go vegan.)
As the economy adjusted to the sudden lack of demand for meat products, we would expect to see widespread suffering and social unrest.
A second major ramification of global vegetarianism would be expanses of new land available. Currently, grazing land for ruminants—cows and their kin—accounts for a staggering 26 percent of the world’s ice-free land surface.
The Dutch scientists predict that 2.7 billion hectares (about 10.4 million square miles) of that grazing land would be freed up by global vegetarianism, along with 100 million hectares (about 386,000 square miles) of land that’s currently used to grow crops for livestock.
Not all of this land would be suitable for humans, but surely it stands to reason that this sudden influx of new territory would make land much cheaper on the whole.
A third major ramification of global vegetarianism would be that the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections would plummet.
Currently, the routine use of antibiotics in animal farming to promote weight gain and prevent illness in unsanitary conditions is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance.
Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that at least 2 million Americans fall ill from antibiotic-resistant pathogens every year and declared that “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”
The overprescription of antibiotics for humans plays a big role in antibiotic resistance, but eradicating the factory farms from which many antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerge would make it more likely that we could continue to count on antibiotics to cure serious illnesses.
So what would be the result, in an all-vegetarian world, of the combination of widespread unemployment and economic disruption, millions of square miles of available land, and a lowered risk of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea?
I can only conclude that people would band together to form communes in order to escape capitalism’s ruthlessness, squat on the former pasture land, and adopt a lifestyle of free love.
I kid. Mostly. It’s easy to get carried away when you’re speculating about unlikely scenarios—and sudden intercontinental vegetarianism is very much an unlikely scenario.
But if the result of a worldwide shift to a plant-based diet sounds like a right-winger’s worst nightmare, it’s worth pointing out that continuing to eat as much meat as we currently do promises to result in a left-winger’s worst nightmare: In a world of untrammeled global warming, where disastrous weather events are routine, global conflicts will increase, only the wealthy will thrive, and the poor will suffer.
Let’s try a middle path. We’re not all going to become vegetarians, but most of us can stop giving our money to factory farms—the biggest and worst offenders, from a pollution and public health perspective.
We can eat less meat than we currently do, especially meat from methane-releasing ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.).
Just because a sudden global conversion to vegetarianism would have jarring effects doesn’t mean we can’t gradually reduce our consumption of meat, giving the market time to adjust. We not only can; we must. After all, with the world’s population slated to grow to 9 billion by 2050, we’ll be needing to take some of the 25 percent of the world’s land area back from the cows.