Asda has been exposed as the supermarket with the highest proportion of chickens contaminated with dangerous bacteria that causes food poisoning.
In a damning report, the Food Standards Agency found 70 per cent of chickens sold at supermarkets were infected with campylobacter.
At Asda the proportion rose to 78 per cent of the birds tested. The food watchdog warned that 28 per cent of Asda chickens contained highly-dangerous levels of the bacteria.
However, even poultry sold at more expensive supermarkets such as Waitrose and M&S were infected with campylobacter, which makes 280,000 people ill every year, killing 100.
Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, said: “Wherever you buy chicken from you are at risk from this nasty bug.”
He said tens of thousands of people were being made ill unnecessarily every year because retailers were doing too little to protect customers. Supermarkets needed to take responsibility for “dozens” of annual deaths caused by the bacteria, which could be prevented, he said.
The Cooperative ranked second worst among the retailers tested in the six-month period between February and July, with 73 per cent of birds testing positive for campylobacter. Tests at Waitrose, Morrisons, and Sainsbury’s all showed results of 69 per cent. See the full league table below.
Tesco was the only retailer where contamination levels were lower than the industry average, the report found.
Mr Wearne refused to comment when asked whether consumers should boycott Asda. “What I would do is make sure I cook [the chicken] properly,” he said.
“These results show that the food industry, especially retailers, need to do more to reduce the amount of campylobacter on fresh chickens.”
The FSA tested whole, fresh chickens. It said cooking properly, by roasting, frying or grilling chicken, would kill the bacteria. Frozen or pre-prepared chicken, such as lunch meats, and cooked chickens sold in supermarkets were not tested.
A spokesman for Asda said: “We take campylobacter seriously and it goes without saying that we’re disappointed with these findings. There is no ‘silver bullet’ to tackle this issue, but along with other retailers, we’re working hard to find a solution.”
The FSA expressed particularly concern over the number of birds it deemed “highly” contaminated, seen as more likely to cause food poisoning. Almost one in five of 1,995 tests gave this result.
At Asda the proportion chickens classed as more dangerous was again noticeably higher at 28 per cent. By contrast, 11 per cent of chickens sold in Tesco had the highest contimination levels, while Waitrose scored 16 per cent.
Shoppers were also warned that the outside packaging of chicken could be covered in bacteria as the bug was often spread in processing plants. At Asda, 12 per cent of the chickens had infected packaging, compared to an average of six per cent across the tests.
Mr Wearne said the FSA had not been able to establish why Asda had performed so poorly and Tesco better than average. He said every retailer was failing to meet industry targets to reduce the number of birds classed as “highly contaminated” to just 10 per cent.
“As long as consumers store, handle and cook chicken properly, including not washing chicken, they’ll help protect themselves and their families from this nasty bug,” he said.
“But it’s not all about consumers, the industry needs to raise its game to reduce the burden of illness that campylobacter causes. This remains the number one priority for the FSA.
“If the industry meets its targets for the end of next year, it will prevent tens of thousands of people each year getting ill, it will stop dozens dying from the complications it sometimes causes, and will save the UK economy hundreds of millions of pounds in avoiding lost productivity every year.”
He confirmed that tests over the summer showed contamination levels were higher than had been reported previously. Between May and July, eight in 10 birds were infected with the potentially deadly bug, the FSA said. However, the food watchdog refused to publish individual retailers’ scores for the period, with insiders claiming nine in ten birds were infected at some stores.
Consumer groups expressed shock at the figures. Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said: “These results are a damning indictment of supermarkets and consumers will be rightly shocked at the failure of trusted household brands to stem the tide of increasingly high levels of campylobacter. Supermarket bosses should hang their heads in shame.
“It’s now vital that the industry cleans up its act and works hard to restore consumer confidence. We want to see supermarkets not only publishing effective plans that tackle these scandalously high levels but also demonstrate they’re taking real action to make chicken safe.”
A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, said: “Today’s figures are an important reminder that we have not yet found a way to prevent the presence of Campylobacter in raw chicken and supermarkets are working even harder to find solutions to help consumers such as leak-proof packaging for all raw chicken and new roast in the bag products – this is our top priority for food safety.”
Prof Christine Dodd, president of the Society for Applied Microbiology, said: “This is not a new problem, and the short term solution remains for us all to ensure that we store, prepare and cook chicken properly.”
The FSA said the long-term solutions – improving standards in the farm and processing – will be costly. For example, spraying chickens with liquid nitrogen so that the skin is effectively frozen is shown to reduce campylobacter by 90 per cent. Supermarkets have said actions due to be taken over the next year will lead to higher prices for chicken.