PHE said sustained reductions through changes to industry practice and limiting contamination at source are an ‘excellent way forward’.
Professor Paul Cosford, director for health protection at PHE, said longer-term surveillance of the levels of contamination in chicken will be particularly important.
“It is only by looking at data over a longer period of time that you can see that there are sustained reductions being achieved by industry and retailers.”
FSA survey results (published yesterday, also find reaction here) revealed 18% of chickens tested positive above the highest level of contamination - above 1,000 colony forming units per gram (>1,000 cfu/g).
Data shows variations between retailers but none are meeting the end-of-production reduction target, said the agency.
In August, the FSA survey revealed 59% of birds tested positive for Campylobacter in the first set of quarterly results on fresh shop-bought chickens.
Retailer and producer action
Dr Frieda Jorgensen, a Campylobacter expert at PHE, said it hopes the results will encourage retailers and producers to take action to reduce chicken meat contamination and infections in people.
“This will not resolve all potential for infection as there are other transmission pathways by which people can become infected including from the natural environment, private water supplies, contact with domestic or agricultural animals, the farm environment and raw milk.
“However this initiative could contribute substantially to reducing the overall level of infections, as has been seen in a similar drive to reduce Campylobacter contamination of chickens in New Zealand.”
PHE said it regularly reports outbreaks of Campylobacter infection linked to under-cooking of chicken livers used for preparing chicken liver pates and parfaits.
The agency was contacted by the FSA to measure contamination by swabbing the outside of packaging and taking samples of meat and processing these in PHE Food, Water and Environment laboratories.
Campylobacter is considered to be responsible for more than 280,000 cases of food poisoning each year.
‘A complex problem’
Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security, said Campylobacter is a complex problem to get to grips with.
“I’m not aware of any region in the world working harder to find solutions to this problem but in my opinion, having looked at all the evidence, there is no ‘quick fix’.
“Improved interventions at the farm level, food processing and packaging, food service and at retail will all be required to really get to grips with significantly reducing the level of contamination and reducing associated human illness.”
Supermarket Asda was the worst performing with 78% of skin samples positive for the pathogen out of 312 samples.
Testing also revealed 28% of skin samples higher than 1,000 cfu/g and 12% of pack samples positive.
Tesco has the lowest rate of samples testing positive with 64% of the 607 samples, 11% above the highest level of contamination and 3% of pack samples contaminated.
The UK-wide survey will review the levels of Campylobacter on fresh whole retail chickens and their packaging, testing from February 2014 to February 2015.
The survey will test 4,000 samples of whole chickens bought from a range of UK retail outlets.
Campylobacter’s natural growth
David Young, partner and health and safety expert at law firm Eversheds, said people should not lose sight of basic facts before declaring they are never going near another chicken (or other poultry).
"Campylobacter grows naturally in chickens, just like lots of bacteria grow naturally in humans. Ours do not harm us at all most of the time; those in chickens will not either, if we take the simple measure of cooking the bird properly," he said.
“The solution lies in education and consumer behaviour and cannot be targeted entirely at manufacturers and retailers. It is a concern if processing leads to contamination on external packaging.
“It is a concern if supermarkets or any other retailers should be giving more priority to their suppliers' production methods and facilities over bare cost per unit, but the other side of that equation is what consumers are willing to pay.
“The culture of poultry being the cheapest of meat will not be altered overnight, but if consumers are not taught to recognise their own role in the hygiene chain no amount of good practice within industry will eradicate the problem."
Huw Irranca-Davies MP, Labour’s shadow food and farming minister, welcomed the publication of the results and naming of the retailers.
“After the horsemeat scandal and the recent allegations of hygiene failings in the poultry industry the government must show leadership and restore confidence in the food sector.
“The government must ensure that a transparent FSA puts the consumer first and is able to challenge the industry to improve standards.”