The Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) scheme to name and shame retailers selling chicken contaminated with high levels of campylobacter launched in November last year will have left most supermarkets shaking. But that wasn't necessarily the case for Marks & Spencer (M&S).
According to Paul Willgoss, M&S’s director of food technology, the retailer had already set out a colossal five-point campylobacter reduction plan before the FSA’s announcement.
Willgoss outlines the plan at the company’s West London-based global headquarters a warren of corridors and offices encased in glass and steel on the banks of the Paddington Basin.
At its simplest, the five-point plan is: no thinning flocks; better on-farm welfare; blast-chilling before packing; educating consumers not to wash their chickens; and bird-specific cooking instructions printed on pack for customers.
But the devil of the plan is in the detail, explains Willgoss, who has been with M&S for more than 20 years. He started his career in food with the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS), which was an extension of the Ministry of Agriculture. ADAS was privatised by the government in 1997.
“My background is in horticulture. I joined M&S in the produce department and then did commercial and technical roles, predominantly in food and agriculture. I also did some business development work with M&S,” he says.
In 2002 Willgoss rejoined the technical team at M&S and was promoted to his current role in 2009. Although he’s based in the UK, his responsibilities reach M&S’s 38 global ‘territories’.
“It’s a big job, yes,” Willgoss admits. “The home team is 90 people, which is a mix of food technologists, food scientists and regulatory staff.”
Turnover (Return to top)
It is little wonder that there are so many people behind Willgoss. Revenue from M&S’s food business in 2014/15 was £5.2bn – more than half (57%) of the company’s total turnover – according to its latest annual results. The food division also delivered 23 consecutive quarters of like-for-like growth.
The expansion of its food business is something the company will capitalise on by launching 250 new food-only stores in the three years to March 2017, Willgoss says. To ensure customers remain attracted to M&S’s offering, there are also plans to continue to refresh over 25% of its product range annually and to go on regularly introducing new products. Last year more than 1,700 new food and drink products made it onto M&S’s shelves.
So, with a lot of weight resting on the continued success of M&S’s food offer, it’s no surprise emphasis has been placed on trying to solve the campylobacter problem.
The fight against campylobacter became more prominent in 2010 when the FSA set campylobacter reduction targets for retailers. By 2013, those targets were woefully short of being met. As a result, the FSA set more targets to see levels on supermarket chickens reduced to 10% or below of chickens contaminated with 1,000 colony forming units per gramme of campylobacter or below by the end of 2015.
Not all of the major retailers involved in the FSA’s testing reached the targets in the last round of sampling in May, yet M&S did. But how?
“It’s a really difficult bug and it’s very adaptive and evolves to suit its environment quickly,” Willgoss explains. “The methods that have worked on reducing salmonella, such as vaccines, don’t work on campylobacter because it’s cleverer than that. There is no silver bullet, but we are able to use a number of interventions.”
One method Willgoss believed would work was to stop its farmers thinning their flocks. After looking back at various pieces of research, it was realised that on-farm interventions had the biggest impact on the bug’s levels.
Farmers thin their flocks so the birds will gain more weight. However, thinning stresses them and breaks biosecurity cordons.
“What we were able to demonstrate with the birds was, after thinning, flocks would go positive for campylobacter. So, what we thought was, if you don’t thin, then you don’t stress the bird and you don't break the biosecurity cordon.”
Positive results (Return to top)
Although Willgoss and the team achieved positive results after banning flock thinning among the company’s poultry suppliers, it was impossible to put a figure on how much campylobacter would be reduced as a result, he admits. “There was no empirical evidence that we could put a number to and say that will give you a 5% reduction or a 50% reduction, we just knew it was reducing campylobacter levels.”
Higher animal welfare on-farm also contributed to lower campylobacter levels, he adds. As a result, M&S has been incentivising its farmers to deliver flocks reared to higher welfare standards and free of campylobacter. On-farm activity started in September last year.
After implementing the steps on-farm, M&S looked at slaughter and processing and, after research, concluded that blast-chilling would help reduce campylobacter levels further.
“After the chicken has been through the normal preparation process, before it is packed, it goes into a piece of machinery that blows very cold air across the carcase, which helps to reduce campylobacter,” Willgoss explains. “So, the bird’s going from -5°C to -15°C.”
The blast-chilling programme was put together in conjunction with 2 Sisters Food Group, Willgoss reveals, but he refuses to go into detail about how much it cost. Although he does admit M&S and its suppliers spent a significant amount of money on the whole plan.
The final two points on Willgoss’s five-point plan tackle the consumer’s understanding of campylobacter and how to help them limit the risk of being poisoned by it.
“What we knew was there were a lot of people talking about consumers washing their chickens under the tap and handling their poultry with not necessarily the right hygiene protocols in place,” Willgoss explains. “We started to put messages on chickens to say that the bird had been washed and was ready to go straight into the oven. We’ve also had dedicated cooking times on individual birds for about 10 years.
“To add strength to both of those areas, we brought in roast-in-the-bag birds. Now customers don’t need to touch the chicken.”
Reduced levels (Return to top)
As a result of the five-step plan, M&S has reduced the levels of campylobacter on its poultry by 30–35%, managed to meet the FSA’s targets of 10% or below of chickens contaminated with campylobacter at the highest levels and educated consumers on making food safer, Willgoss claims. “On average, we’re achieving [contamination levels of] between 7% and 10%,” he adds.
However, Willgoss and his team are not resting on their laurels. “We need to see what happens in the summer months. Campylobacter increases during warmer weather. As a result, we won’t know for sure if the five-point plan is truly effective until we have all of the data for the summer.”
Despite Willgoss’s caution, he says there are no figures worrying him. Yet, he is also aware that, as a result of campylobacter’s ability to adapt, the five-step plan may not work as well in the future.
He says: “I don’t think we feel like we’ve finished the job. This is still a work in progress and, as long as we continue to believe that, we will look for other interventions.
“We would love there to be a silver bullet, but we’ve tried all sorts over the years and there just isn’t. The five-point plan has been successful so far because we decided that it wasn’t a trial, but a full roll-out across our process.”
The efforts of Willgoss and his team have paid off and M&S appears to be a success story of the pressure the FSA put on retailers to reduce their levels of campylobacter contamination on chicken. Whether M&S’s five-point plan will continue to work remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Willgoss also announced plans to rollout unannounced audits across its suppliers.