The controversy over factory farming methods for British poultry took a new twist yesterday after Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef leading a campaign for better treatment of chickens, wrote to Sainsbury's praising the retailer's "real leadership" in the industry.
The Channel 4 star and face of Sainsbury's advertising campaign was prompted to write by newspaper reports suggesting he was furious that Sainsbury's officials failed to turn up to a debate on factory farming. The debate was part of Jamie's Fowl Dinners, a one-off documentary to be broadcast at 9pm this evening on Channel 4.
In his letter, Oliver, who is paid £1.2m a year by the supermarket giant, says he is "incredibly upset" with journalists "who misrepresent the programme as a whole", referring specifically to an article in the Daily Mirror on Monday.
The chef, who has campaigned for healthier school dinners, says he wishes he was writing "in different circumstances", adding that his words had been taken out of context and his positive comments about Sainsbury's "have all been ignored somewhat (sic)".
Oliver, 32, had been quoted in several newspapers expressing his anger that despite inviting officials from the four biggest high street retailers (Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda) to the debate, only people from Waitrose and The Co-operative turned up. He said: "I'm really upset ... why didn't they come? What is there to hide? It's shocking that people I work for didn't turn up on the day. I don't know why.
"Their PR department hasn't even got the confidence to turn up and talk about what they do for millions of people who come through their doors each week. Of course the supermarket should have turned up. How dare they not?"
But in his open letter, addressed to Justin King, Sainsbury's chief executive, and copied to 150,000 staff nationwide, the chef seeks to reassure his colleagues that he is fully behind them.
"I am happy to confirm what I have said on several occasions: that Sainsbury's has the most to be proud of on this important animal welfare issue", he writes. "Indeed I would not have continued working with Sainsbury's for so many years if I did not believe that you were showing real leadership." He goes on to tell Mr King: "Your team have been particularly helpful".
Sainsbury's took out full-page colour advertisements in British newspapers yesterday in an attempt to reassure customers that the company is "working hard to continually improve welfare standards". The ad included a quote from Oliver's letter, as well as complimentary quotes from the RSPCA Freedom Food campaign and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF).
But the CIWF website suggests Oliver's assertion that Sainsbury's "has most to be proud of" on animal welfare may be an exaggeration. In the charity's Compassionate Supermarket Awards, Sainsbury's came fourth after Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, and The Co-operative. But it won a "most improved" award and has promised to upgrade its 72 million standard chickens to RSPCA standards in the next few years.
A spokeswoman for the retailer confirmed that Oliver's letter had been delivered to every Sainsbury's office and store, where it will be displayed on noticeboards.
Tonight's broadcast concludes a week of programmes on Channel 4 in which Oliver and his fellow chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlight the miserable conditions in which many intensively farmed British animals live. In the programme, Oliver electrocutes a chicken and drains its blood in front of a studio audience. He also shows how males superfluous to the egg market's needs are suffocated. Oliver's contract with Sainsbury's is up for renewal in April.