As a result, the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) is targeting poultry producers to help achieve a 20 per cent reduction in the incidence of foodborne diseases by April 2006.
This is contained in the FSA's strategic plan for 2005-2010, a five-year strategy that focuses on primary food production as a means of reducing contamination at source. This strategy is supported by the findings of a recent report released by the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM), which found that food in the beginning of the supply chain is more vulnerable to contamination than food in the processing and packaging stages of production, because of environmental variability and our inability to control it.
The report, "Preharvest Food Safety and Security," points out that recent outbreaks of a number of foodborne illnesses have been linked to contamination occurring in the preharvest stage of food processing.
As part of its strategy therefore, the FSA aims to work closely with the farming industry to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in the incidence of UK-produced chickens, which test positive for campylobacter at slaughter by 2010.
Campylobacter is responsible for over 50,000 laboratory confirmed cases of illness a year, a large proportion of which are thought to be foodborne. It was estimated that in 2000, the organism accounted for 27 per cent of all cases of indigenous foodborne disease and there is strong evidence to suggest that the most significant food source is chicken.
"Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK and chicken is a major source of this type of bacteria in the kitchen," said Dr Judith Hilton, head of the FSA's microbiological safety division in a recent article in the Environmental Health Journal.
"So, reducing campylobacter in chickens will help to reduce the risk of food poisoning."
The UK's poultry industry is huge. More than a million tonnes of chicken meat is produced in the UK every year, 96 per cent of which is from intensive production systems. The UK's poultry industry has increasingly been squeezed by both cheaper imports and tighter margins though, and last year poultry producers received an average of 2p less than the cost of production for each bird because of a price war between retailers and caterers.
Nonetheless, the first three years of the FSA's campylobacter strategy will focus aggressively on a campaign to improve biosecurity on intensive chicken farms. The idea is that by ensuring that all farms achieve an appropriate standard of biosecurity, the number of campylobacter positive flocks will be reduced.
This in turn should restore consumer confidence in poultry, which was damaged by last year's bird flu outbreaks in Asia and mainland Europe. Although contamination of UK poultry stocks was always highly unlikely, the adverse effect on public opinion was difficult to counteract.
The FSA's strategy certainly corresponds to the recommendations of the AAM report, which is based on the findings of a gathering of experts in veterinary medicine, agriculture, plant science and food safety that met in Scotland in December 2003.
"No matter how meticulously food is handled, prepared, or cooked, pathogens acquired during preharvest cannot always be inactivated," according to Colloquium co-chair, Richard E. Isaacson of the University of Minnesota. "Many foods have a higher risk because they are consumed raw, as was the case recently in Pennsylvania where 650 fell ill and 3 died from an outbreak of hepatitis A from contaminated green onions that originated in Mexico."
Elimination of all foodborne pathogens is impossible, but the goal of preharvest food safety as practiced by the likes of the FSA must be to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses by minimising the number of pathogens in food and the frequency, extent, and distribution of such contaminants in the preharvest phase. The AAM report recommends systematic surveillance, detection methods, risk assessment, and trade issues as the areas that should be emphasised to ensure safety during all stages of food production.
"We need to take into account the risks that pose the biggest threats to the greatest number of people, which include pathogenic viruses in the production of shellfish, parasites from meat and poultry, and bacterial foodborne pathogens introduced by humans and animals," said Colloquium co-chair, Mary Torrence, of the US department of agriculture.