Speaking at Food Manufacture’s recent food safety conference (October 17), Rhodes said: “It can become a competitive issue … I think if somebody does manage to get levels down considerably, then why wouldn’t they try to seek a commercial advantage?”
But, he accepted it would be a difficult marketing message to get across to consumers.
“My chicken is safer than your chicken, but my chicken is not 100% safe is a very hard sell,” said Rhodes. However, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen, he added. “Because if somebody does find a way [of reducing campylobacter significantly], then there is an advantage to be made and differentiation to be got – and I’d be amazed if it was not exploited.”
Rhodes complained that general awareness about campylobacter contamination in chicken was low because of the industry’s reluctance to talk about it.
But that could change as some supermarkets are found to be more successful at reducing levels of the pathogen in chicken in their supply chains than others, he added.
‘Kills people every year’
“Campylobacter is really important,” said Rhodes. “About two-thirds of chickens have campylobacter on them. It’s the largest cause of foodborne disease and kills people every year.” However, he added: “Nobody really wants to talk about campylobacter very much because some retailers and manufacturers are hitting campylobacter levels – a result – others don’t want to talk about it; others don’t want it to be a market differentiator.”
Rhodes noted that campylobacter was starting to capture news headlines, which he argued was good as it helped to draw attention to the size of the problem “because the sooner we tackle this, the safer we will be”.
“Lots of other areas of safety have become a competitive issue for a very long time; food hazards are a bit of a taboo,” he said. “Quality is a competitive issue; environmental conditions and working conditions; ethics – so why shouldn’t [food] safety be a competitive issue?”
Rhodes added: “I think the difficulty with campylobacter is that people are just struggling with it. One manufacturer said to us the other day ‘if this turned chicken green, we would have fixed this a long time ago’. And I think that is absolutely true and there are definite motivations in there.”
Co-operation between retailers
But British Retail Consortium technical director David Brackston disputed that food safety was a competitive issue within the food supply chain. He suggested that co-operation between retailers and the sharing of best practice would be far more effective in reducing campylobacter contamination of chicken.
“When it comes down to a lot of these food scares, there are industry initiatives to ensure that the whole industry is protected,” said Brackston. “Because when a scare happens with chicken or any other product, it’s not the individual brand that necessarily loses. We’ve found in the past it’s the whole industry that is affected. So it is in the interests of the whole industry to co-operate to try to reduce the risk.”
Meanwhile the main sponsors of the conference were Interek, Ishida and Alchemy.
Associated sponsors were NSF, Safefood 360, Softrace and the Institute of Food Research.