The agency’s chief executive Tim J Smith said the retail sector could influence the food standards and quality of poultry processors and producers by increasing the prices it pays to suppliers.
Smith revealed he had urged the heads of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury, the Co-op, Marks & Spencer’s, Waitrose and Morrisons to help raise standards after a survey found that campylobacter had been found in 65 per cent of chicken samples in the UK retail chain.
The FSA added that as part of a far-reaching programme, it was working with processors to improve plant hygiene and with producers to boost biosecurity measures. The body said it believed campylobacter would be cut along the supply chain if supermarkets were prepared to pay higher prices. Packaging solutions – such as modified atmosphere packing - could also play a part in tackling the problem, it added.
In a letter to retail chiefs, Smith said he wanted the UK to reduce its campylobacter levels in line with other countries. His announcement came after a report from the European Food Safety Authority found the handling, preparation and consumption of broiler meat may directly account for 20 to 30 per cent of human cases of campylobacteriosis in the European Union.
As part of the UK initiative, the FSA chief said he wanted to work with the entire supply chain in the poultry industry to uncover actions that could reduce campylobacter in chicken flocks and on carcasses.
Co-operation from retailers would “make identifying and implementing effective intervention measures for the control of Campylobacter at farm and processing level much simpler and more successful”, said Smith.
An agency spokesman told FoodProductionDaily.com it was exploring a raft of initiatives aimed at different parts of the supply chain to reduce contamination. At producer level, it was working to develop and implement biosecurity measures to limit Campylobacter colonisation of chickens, although further research was needed to understand the critical contamination points in production prior to slaughter.
The body said one action that processors could undertake was to improve hygienic practices in their processing plants. It added it was working with poultry processors to develop a slaughterhouse hygiene tool to allow them to measure hygiene levels in their plants and change practices to improve it. This tool is currently being trialled by the majority of large poultry processors.
Other processor options
The FSA confirmed it was exploring a range of post-processing carcass treatments used outside the UK as part of the bid to cut campylobacter. It stated that practices such as antimicrobial washes with chlorinated water, were not “currently permitted in the UK”, while other such as steam treatment or freezing of carcasses were allowed. The issues would be explored at a top level conference on the disease in March hosted by the agency.
“Evidence from New Zealand and the USA suggest that processing interventions can be particularly successful in reducing Campylobacter contamination,” said the spokesman.
Smith concluded the time was right for changes in retail buying strategies to “ensure the speediest most effective reduction in campylobacter incidence in their own products.
He said there were direct parallels to be drawn to reductions achieved in the dairy sector where TVC bacterial loadings were linked to the price paid and ultimately supply contracts. Under this scheme, contracts between buyers and suppliers included quality and hygiene criteria. The price paid for the product was graded depending on how many of these criteria a supplier was able to meet.
The British Poultry Council said: "Campylobacter is a very complex organism. The BPC would like to point out the efforts already being made by the industry, the FSA, and the British Retail Consortium who are working together in the Joint Campylobacter working group. While this is mainly focussed, at this stage, on possible measures during processing, there is a clear need for more scientific research, particularly on routes of transmission, to identify effective prevention and controls at the farm level."