Food safety webchat with Sainsbury's brand director Judith Batchelar
Sainsbury's brand director Judith Batchelar joined us in March to answer your questions on a range of food issues including how Sainsbury's avoided the horsemeat issue, where our food comes from and what to look for on labels and packaging.
Judith is responsible for Sainsbury's food quality and safety standards, as well as its development work with British farmers and new product development. She has worked in the food and drink industry for 29 years, is a biochemist and registered nutritionist.
Q. 1991all: How was Sainsbury's able to escape the horse meat scandal? Was it just luck?
A. Judith Batchelar: We aren't being complacent but I don't think it is down to luck. This issue has
highlighted the importance of having a detailed knowledge of and involvement in your supply chain. This is something that's part of Sainsbury's 144 year heritage.
We have one of the most extensive quality control programmes in the industry and we apply the same checks right across our products - from Basics to Taste the Difference. We have used DNA testing for over a decade, as well as checks on country of origin, announced and unannounced audits of suppliers and independent product testing to ensure that what it says on the label is what you are buying.
This is not just about our quality control measures. Our entire supply chain, from farm to store, is built around long-term sustainable relationships. We work closely with over 2,500 farmers who are part of Sainsbury's dedicated Farmer Development Groups and have invested over £40 million in developing these relationships, as part of our commitment to double our sales of British food by 2020.
Q. Jcee: The horsemeat scandal has highlighted how complex our food chain has become, the number of producers and suppliers involved and the complicated production logistics involved. It seems we're in a very bad place with regard to our relationship with food and its production. With your experience in the sector, do you agree? Where do we go from here and who should be leading the way?
A. Judith Batchelar: If the horsemeat scandal means more consumers ask questions about
where their food comes from I think that's a good thing. We should care about where our food comes from.
Sainsbury's buys a lot of meat from British farmers. I don't just mean the traditional cuts of meat but all of the chicken, pork and beef in our fresh ready meals, pies and sandwiches, quiches and soups are 100% British with the exception of continental meats. Some things such as Parma ham have to come from Parma. You asked about where we go from here. In 2011 Sainsbury's announced an ambitious target to double the amount of British food it sells by 2020.
We work closely with over 2,500 farmers who are part of Sainsbury's dedicated Farmer Development Groups and have invested over £40 million in developing these relationships to achieve this goal.
We are a business but we don't make decisions just based on price. We don't think that makes good business sense. For example we have recently announced that we are extending our agreement with the milk farmers who supply us. Under the agreement we reward them for their outstanding animal welfare and environmental standards by paying them according to the cost of production rather than open market prices.
Q. Motherofallmuddles: I don't understand how horsemeat entered the food chain in the first place. Surely this signals an awful lack of awareness as to where the meat is coming from or a total lack of concern by supermarkets. Can you guarantee 100% that Sainsbury's is horsemeat free?
A. Judith Batchelar: The first point to make is that this issue is now a formal police investigation because criminal activity has led to horse meat being sold as beef in the supply chain. The second point is that most of the positive findings on horse meat have been in the food service sector, not in supermarkets. However, although at Sainsbury's we have not found horse meat in our products, we are well aware that customers' trust in the food industry in general has suffered. We are not complacent about this.
Q. bebee: Do you think the UK public would ever accept horsemeat as a food - if it was killed and prepared properly?
A. Judith Batchelar: It is perfectly legal to sell horse meat in the UK as long as you are licenced to do so. Historically there hasn't been a huge demand for horse meat, but in a similar fashion, venison hasn't been that popular in recent years, but is starting to become more commonplace. So who knows?
Q. Giggi: Since the horsemeat scandal, has there been a shift in what consumers buy? Will beef farmers suffer economically?
A. Judith Batchelar: We have seen some people buying more chicken and fish rather than beef but it's too soon to know if this will be a long term trend. British beef farmers will always have a market for their beef because it is acknowledged to be produced to the highest standards. For example Scottish Aberdeen Angus beef is in demand the world over.
Q. notcitrus: What control do you have over your suppliers to ensure that meat or products are what they say, especially when sourced from other countries particularly outside the EU?
A. Judith Batchelar: Every single Sainsbury's product has a very detailed product specification, which articulates in detail the source of every ingredient, including country of origin, the testing required of that product, which will include food safety testing, country of origin testing, nutritional testing. The specification also includes the labelling, packaging, recycling and shelf-life and storage guidelines. In fact there's not much it doesn't include!
However, this is not just a paperwork exercise. We visit and audit suppliers and sometimes they don't know we're coming. We test product independently as well in our own laboratory. And we require supplier to share their test results. The important point in all of this, is that wherever we source from, we source to the same high standards.
Q. bizagez: How do companies test products? Can the process be trusted? Is there an independent body doing it on a regular basis or are we relying on the supermarkets or suppliers to tell us? Who first found the horse meat in UK products?
A. Judith Batchelar: The Irish Food Safety Authority (IFSA) were the first to find horse meat in a number of products produced in Ireland and sold in Ireland and the UK. The IFSA is an independent body working on behalf of government to test products for authenticity, provenance, food safety and contamination. In addition all suppliers, brand owners and retailers will have their own bespoke testing and auditing programmes.
Q. jackstini: When will a supermarket be brave enough to sell different food as a cheaper option? I am quite happy to eat horse meat if it is labelled as such, especially as it's lower in fat and could be cheaper.
I'm happy to buy the odd shaped vegetables that seem to get thrown away in this country and am sure I am not alone. This could be a huge opportunity to sell food that would otherwise go to waste and save your customers money too.
A. Judith Batchelar: You definitely aren't alone. In these stretched times more and more people are looking for cheaper alternatives and we are doing our best to help. We don't have any plans to start selling horsemeat but we are more focused than ever on providing ways for our customers to make the most of their food shop. For example, through our most recent ‘Make Your Roast Go Further' campaign we're giving information on how to create two additional family meals from every Sunday roasting joint.
We have also responded to one of the worst growing seasons farmers have experienced in decades by changing our approach to ‘ugly' fruit and vegetables allowing food that would previously have been wasted to be sold. None of Sainsbury's food waste goes to landfill. Instead we donate any surplus food to charities and any waste not fit for consumption, goes to anaerobic digestion to generate renewable energy.
Q. Woofers: Where do Sainsbury's chickens come from? My family will only buy free range chicken as we don't agree with having six chickens in a space no bigger than an A4 page. And we won't eat chicken or any meat from another country, not when we have so much in this country.
A. Judith Batchelar: All of our fresh chicken is British and has been for last 10 years and in addition, our frozen chicken has been British for over six years. The chicken in our fresh ready meals, sandwiches, soups and pies is also British. Our Country of Origin labelling should state this clearly on the pack, on the front with a union flag and the word 'chicken', and on the back of the pack next to the ingredients list.
We are the biggest retailer in the world of RSPCA Freedom Food higher welfare chicken and we do offer standard free range and organic chickens. However we do have something quite unique in our Woodland chickens, which can be both free range and organic, in that we plant trees around the chicken houses to encourage the chickens to range and roam and generally display natural chicken behaviours. Indeed, independent academic research has shown that these Woodland chickens have better welfare outcomes than conventional free range or organic birds. Today you can buy in Sainsbury's a very special Woodland bird, the Norfolk Black Chicken, which is a cross between a continental black feathered and legged bird and a more traditional big-breasted British bird. You can easily spot it in our stores by its black legs but I have to say, I now buy it all the time because it's absolutely delicious! Our farmer, Mark Gorton, won the recent Poultry Farmer of the year Award.
Q. dreamingofsun: How do I ensure sausages are made of good quality meat and not just the poor quality pieces that you would never normally even consider buying?
A. Judith Batchelar: The key thing to look for in sausages is the amount of meat and where it's from. This should be declared as a percentage in the ingredients list. You should also check that the ingredients list only contains things you recognise. In all our sausages we use wholesome meat that you could buy at a butcher.
Q. SwearyBear: I feel misled on a number of food issues - particularly the origin of products. It concerns me that conditions, welfare and feed might be sub-standard eg. chickens from Malaysia and Brazil which become legally British following de-skinning at a British depot after shipping, are sold with Union Jack branding.
What is the percentage of meat sold by Sainsbury's that is born, raised and slaughtered in the UK - not just able to say its British because it underwent some form of processing in the UK after import.
A. Judith Batchelar: We always source products to the same high standards whether they are produced in the UK, or abroad.
The British meat in our products comes from animals born and bred in the UK, and by the way, the same is true of our cheddar cheese which is made from British milk from British cows.
All of our fresh chicken has been British for over ten years and all of our frozen chicken has been British for over six years. All of the chicken in our fresh ready meals, pies, sandwiches, quiches and soups is also 100% British and we have begun using British chicken in our frozen chicken ready meals. We don't source chicken from Malaysia or Brazil.
We are proud to have led the way on country of origin labelling and it's great that EU legislation will also now be making requirements on country of origin labelling.
Q. Furball: I'm glad to see that Sainsbury's has switched to British chicken in all its ready meals - fresh and frozen.
A. Judith Batchelar: I am glad our plans to source more British food please you. All of our whole frozen and fresh chicken has been British for over six years. It's true that all the chicken in our fresh ready meals is also 100% British but we aren't there yet on frozen chicken ready meals and haven't claimed to be. We are working on it though!
Q. Nikced: I always get bacon that says 'from British/UK pigs, produced/processed in Britain/UK'. Does this mean that the animal's welfare has been ok?
A. Judith Batchelar: When our bacon isn't British from British pigs we say so on the front of the packet. We only buy Danish bacon from Danish pigs raised to the same standards as British pigs.
Q. tuffie: Why does Sainsbury's still source so many products from outside the UK? Surely it is in Sainsbury's long-term interests to support UK farmers, and to create a stronger UK economy?
A. Judith Batchelar: I agree that we should support British farmers and growers. We already buy a lot of British food and have ambitious plans to double the amount of British food we sell by 2020.
I gave more detail about our work with British farmers in my earlier answer to Jcee. I hope you saw that. There is more information on our website – Best for British
Q. TheMancunianWay: How confident are you that Sainsbury's will be able to guarantee that products labelled beef are only beef and don't contain a percentage of pork, for example?
A. Judith Batchelar: We go to great lengths to ensure that what it says on the packet is what is in the packet. That includes working with our suppliers and in turn their suppliers, having full traceability of the end to end supply chain right back to farm. Finally, testing finished product for DNA, food safety, country of origin and whether a product has been previously frozen. Both our fresh and frozen beef burgers are made from British beef.
Q. LoganMummy: Will Sainsbury's be introducing smart food labels that colour change as the food goes off? Seems like a good idea to stop wastage.
A. Judith Batchelar: We are always looking at ways to help our customers to waste less food. For example we've recently changed all of our freezing guidelines to say 'freeze up until use by date' instead of 'freeze on day of purchase'. We are also in the process of changing all our date-code labels to either 'best before' or 'use by' as we know customers were confused by 'display until' dates.
New technology such as smart labels gives us a real opportunity to move this on again and we're at the moment looking at how we can use these developments in areas such as cooked meats.
Q. ItsAllGoingToBeFine: What can you put into a food product without it appearing on the ingredients list at all?
A. Judith Batchelar: UK labelling legislation that defines what needs to be included in an ingredients list is some of the most rigorous in the world; and new legislation which needs to be implemented by Dec 2014 will be even more thorough - including country of origin labelling.
Ingredients used in a product need to be listed on pack but there are a few anomalies for example 'natural foods' like yoghurt don't need to declare the ingredients in the yoghurt itself only the added ingredients like strawberries,or sugar and wines currently don't need to carry an ingredients list although the EU is looking at this.
Q. GreatGooglyMoogly: I am staggered by the number of products that now contain some kind of fructose syrup instead of/ as well as sugar. I assume this is because sugar is so expensive? What are your views on this and could we please have some product options without it in? I am happy to pay more!
A. Judith Batchelar: We have done a lot of work on this. Where fructose syrup is used in Sainsbury's products, it is listed as glucose-fructose syrup. Glucose-fructose syrup is used in a variety of Sainsbury's products to provide sweetness, either alone or in combination with table sugar.
At present, most leading scientists and nutrition experts agree that, in terms of health, the effects of consuming glucose-fructose syrup are the same as that of regular sugar, particularly in relation to dental health. In relation to obesity, both table sugar and glucose-fructose syrup provide 4kcal per gram consumed. The guideline daily amount for sugar, including sugar consumed as Glucose-fructose syrup, is 90g for adults.
Q. ClaraOswinOswald: What is Sainsbury's doing to help combat the huge food waste issue we have in the UK? When so much fruit and veg don't even reach the shelves it makes me think the consumer is not the only one wasting vast quantities of food. I'd be happy to buy wonky cucumbers, carrots etc. knowing I was cutting down on waste.
A. Judith Batchelar: I agree that cutting down on waste needs to be a priority. None of Sainsbury's food waste goes to landfill. Instead we donate any surplus food to charities and any waste not fit for consumption, goes to anaerobic digestion to generate renewable energy.
We have responded to one of the worst growing seasons farmers have experienced in decades by changing our approach to 'ugly' fruit and vegetables allowing food that would previously have been wasted to be sold. You might find these websites interesting: Make Your Roast Go Further, and Love Food Hate Waste
Q. sonnyandluca: Not sure if this is your area of responsibility but wouldn't it help with reducing food wastage if you went back to selling loose potatoes rather than in huge 1.5KG bags? I don't want potatoes every night of the week but what choice do we have when you insist on selling by the sack load?
A.Judith Batchelar: Thank you for the feedback, can you let me know which store you shop in as we do sell loose potatoes as well as a variety of bag sizes. It may well be that your local store doesn't have the whole selection.
Q. redwellybluewelly: Could you produce smaller cartons of Oately Calcium? Why can't foods have the distance they have travelled shown on the label somehow? And lastly, offering money off or saving vouchers for two weeks not a week would persuade me to shop at Sainsbury's more.
A. Judith Batchelar: Thanks for suggesting smaller packets of Oatley calcium. We have talked to our supplier about this. At the moment they don't have the right equipment to produce smaller packets but never say never.
We are always looking at new ways of giving information about our products. It's a balance between giving information people want and not putting so much information on the packaging that you cannot find what you want.
Sorry to hear you have missed out on saving some money. Our Brand Match vouchers are valid for two weeks.
Q. JustGiveMeFiveMinutes: Some time ago I moved to a great town. In the heart of the town centre is a Sainsbury's. It is small and scruffy and the intention of Sainsbury's was to expand the store. Sainsbury's set about buying up properties within the town centre with the intention of knocking them down eventually and building a superstore. However, the local people objected on the basis that the store would be too big at which point Sainsbury's threw their toys out of the pram and have basically let the town centre rot. The place is like a ghost town and it's an absolute disgrace. No doubt it will serve as a warning to any other town which dares to object to Sainsbury's. What your company has done is disgusting and it shows the contempt supermarkets such as yours have for local communities.
A. Judith Batchelar: We had genuine intentions to redevelop our store and regenerate the surrounding area back and were disappointed not to be able to secure the opportunity to do this.
We take our responsibilities as a landlord very seriously and in Crosby Village our colleagues actively maintain a working relationship with our tenants. It is not in our interests to leave units vacant and we promote the letting of empty units.
We have plans for some amendments in the near future to the store's entrance lobby, ATM and some equipment on the store's roof, for which a planning application has been submitted. We hope that these changes, although minor, will improve the shopping experience for our customers and make the best of our existing store.
Finally, as part of our commitment to support the communities where we have stores all of our stores and depots take part in our Local Charity of the Year scheme. Last year colleagues volunteered more than 7,000 days and Sainsbury's raised £28 million for good causes with the funds helping over 1,000 local and national charities and community groups.
Q. tak1ngchances: I just wanted to say thank you for carrying an excellent range of products for people with allergies/intolerances. We are gluten and dairy free in this house and Sainsbury's is definitely our supermarket of choice.
A. Judith Batchelar: Thank you. It's always lovely to hear that people are pleased with what we offer.