ITV News has found Asda, Iceland and Lidl are buying chickens from a Polish producer despite serious health warnings, Daniel Hewitt reports
Three of the UK’s biggest supermarkets are sourcing chickens dosed with antibiotics by a poultry producer in Poland linked to the spread of deadly superbugs.
SuperDrob, a major European meat producer, supplies frozen chicken products to Asda, Iceland and Lidl. An investigation by ITV News, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and The Guardian has discovered SuperDrob is sourcing chickens from farms that use the same group of antibiotics on poultry that is also critical to treat human infection.The company was linked to an outbreak of antibiotic resistant Salmonella in the UK and Europe in 2020, which killed five people and infected around 1,300 others.
A letter obtained via Freedom of Information request from the UK’s Chief Veterinary Office Christine Middlemiss to her Polish counterpart in December 2020 stated her investigations “have now firmly linked the outbreaks with frozen, raw breaded chicken products imported from Poland, and to a specific poultry production company in Poland”. SuperDrob is then named in the letter as the company.
Two and half years on, we carried out tests of waste samples collected from different poultry farms in different locations in Poland which produce chickens for SuperDrob, to see if antibiotics are being given to the chickens. The results indicated they are.
The samples tested positive for bacteria - including E. Coli, a source of food poisoning in humans - resistant to fluoroquinolones, the same group of antibiotics used in humans to treat life threatening infections.
The tests were carried out at the University of Oxford by Professor of Medical Microbiology, Tim Walsh and his team. He told ITV News it is “extremely concerning” that the same antibiotics used to treat sickness in human beings are still being used in animals.
“There is a direct link between the use of antibiotics in farms and the resistance that occurs, and then what happens in the human population,” he said.
“We found enrofloxacin resistance, which would then give resistance to a drug that is a very similar drug we use in humans called ciprofloxacin. So, the use of enrofloxacin on the farms would actually mediate resistance to a human antibiotic, which is really important.
"We know that this shouldn’t be happening but regrettably it seems to continue.”
The samples also tested positive for colistin; an antibiotic of last resort used to treat very serious infections in humans.
“Colistin should be banned for use in animals per se,” argues Professor Walsh.
He likened the rise of antibiotic resistance to the whole human race “staring down the barrel of a gun”, or “a slow tsunami coming towards us.”
The World Health Organisation has declared antimicrobial resistance a top global public health threat, directly killing more than 1.2 million people and associated with five million deaths in 2019.
The United Nations estimates up to ten million deaths could be caused by superbugs and associated forms of antimicrobial resistance by 2050, matching the annual global death toll of cancer.
As a result, the use of antibiotics in farming is subject to strict rules.
Last year the European Union banned the excessive and routine use of antibiotics in farm animals as compensation for unhygienic cramped conditions where diseases like salmonella and E. coli can easily spread, often on factory farms.
The new regulations mean that only sick, individual animals may be administered antibiotics.
SuperDrob told us antibiotics are used in their chickens, and the company does not deny using the same groups of antibiotics used to treat human infection.
A spokesperson said: “SuperDrob has imposed a reduction policy of a minimum of 10% year-on-year, with a view to phasing out the use of enrofloxacin and colistin in poultry treatment by the end of 2025. This policy was initiated in 2020 and SuperDrob has achieved at least the minimum reduction each year.
“Antibiotics are only used in SuperDrob’s farms or in the farms of its suppliers when (1) recommended by a veterinarian, and (2) justified by presence of a disease and where administration of antibiotics would achieve therapeutic success. The whole treatment process is recommended, supervised, and coordinated by the Government veterinarian based on knowledge, case analysis, results of testing.”
SuperDrob declined to comment on the salmonella outbreak in 2020.
Chicken products in UK supermarkets supplied by SuperDrob
TGI Fridays' Chicken Louisiana Hot Mess (Exclusive to Iceland)'TGI Fridays' Crispy Nashville Style Chicken Wings (Exclusive to Iceland)Iceland Chicken Wings 'Hot & Spicy'Iceland Chicken Kievs 'Cheese & Ham'Iceland Chicken Kievs 'Garlic & Herb Butter'Iceland Boneless Chicken Thigh Burgers 'Southern Fried'Iceland Chicken Thigh Bites 'Southern Fried'Iceland Chicken Popsters 'Southern Fried'Asda - Southern Fried Chicken Breast stripsAsda - Hot and Spicy chicken breast stripsAsda - Crispy Chicken Breast stripsAsda - Southern Fried Chicken Breast Fillet BurgersAsda - Hot and Spicy Chicken Breast Fillet BurgersAsda - Chicken BitesLidl - Red Hen Breaded Chicken Pops
Asda, which sells a range of frozen chicken products supplied by SuperDrob, told ITV News: “Asda works closely with all of its suppliers to promote responsible antibiotic use. All of our frozen poultry products which are produced outside of the UK are only imported once they have been through rigorous safety and quality checks, and all products are labelled with validated cooking instructions.
"Following a rise in cases of salmonella in 2020 and 2021 the FSA (Food Standards Agency) encouraged consumers to ensure they were following the on pack cooking methods as this was found to be one of the causes of the spike in cases at that time.”
Sir Robert Goodwill, Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural affairs committee said the UK is cutting down on antibiotic use to avoid resistance and maintain 'the highest standards in the world'
An Iceland spokesperson said the supermarket independently verifies its products are safe to eat and meets all UK regulations.
They added: “We worked closely with our supplier and the UK Food Standard Agency in 2020 to temporarily withdraw products alongside other retailers, due to a salmonella risk assessment...and while salmonella continues to be an ongoing management issue within the poultry sector, we have no current cause for concern in our supply chain.”
Lidl also told us both food safety and animal welfare are a priority for their business, adding: “All products are subject to extensive quality controls throughout the supply chain and for the very small number of proteins imported, suppliers are required to align with Lidl’s antibiotics policy.
"Whilst Lidl recognises the importance of antibiotics within animal medicine and for the treatment of individual animals that are ill, usage is only permitted in the event of an emergency and within the framework of legal requirements. All Lidl suppliers are prohibited from using antibiotics as a preventative measure.”
TGI Fridays branded products in Iceland are owned and distributed by TGI Fridays in the US.
We approached TGI Fridays US for comment. They did not respond.
Superbugs are not just a problem for the future. In a separate incident, not linked to SuperDrob chicken, Joanna Nash was six years old when she became extremely unwell after eating meat contaminated with superbug E. coli.
Despite receiving medical treatment, she died nine days later.
“Joanna was a bright, bubbly little girl, always playing football – she just loved life,” her mum Norah Nash told ITV News.
“They couldn’t treat her with antibiotics.
“It affected her brain, her kidneys, every part of her body and afterwards they couldn't use anything to donate because every part of her body had been affected.”
Joanna’s dad Steve now campaigns for higher standards of food safety.
“The idea of antibiotic resistance has been known about for some considerable time,” said Steve.
He added: “We know there is a problem, but we need to address the problem. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.”
Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of food and farming campaign group Sustain, agrees the issue is not being tackled urgently enough.
She said: “It is really, hugely troubling to hear of any antibiotics being used that are really critical in treating human disease.
"If we’re wasting that (antibiotics) on animal production because we can’t be bothered to let the chickens have extra space, then we are losing the ability of antibiotics to work on routine infections.
“You could end up dying from an infection from breaking your leg; you might not be able to have a caesarean section safely any more in the future.”
When cooking raw meat, including chicken, the Foods Standards Agency offers the following advice:
"When cooking pork, poultry or minced meat (including burgers and sausages), make sure they are steaming hot and cooked all the way through before serving. Cut through the thickest part of the meat to ensure none of the meat is pink and the juices run clear."
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