FSA: More than three-quarters of chickens positive for Campylobacter

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

FSA welcomed signs of progress on Campylobacter
FSA welcomed signs of progress on Campylobacter

Related tags: Campylobacter, Microbiology

More than three quarters of chickens sampled tested positive for Campylobacter, according to the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Campylobacter was present on 76% of samples, down from 83% in the same months of last year, found the first set of results from its second year survey on fresh shop-bought chickens.

However, this figure rose from 73% compared with testing between February 2014 and 2015​.

Results from July to September testing showed a decrease in the number of birds with the highest level of contamination from the same months last year, down from 22% to 15%.

The highest band of contamination is more than 1,000 colony forming units per gram (cfu/g).

Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, making an estimated 280,000 people ill every year, said the FSA

It also found 0.3% of packaging tested positive at the highest band of contamination and 6% of packaging tested positive for Campylobacter presence.

A total of 1,032 samples of fresh whole chilled UK-produced chickens and packaging were tested.

FSA is currently hosting a two week visit​ from the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) on the subject.

Testing of chickens from Co-op and Waitrose show both retailers have made the most significant reductions in the proportion of the chickens they sell that are most highly-contaminated. Morrisons and Asda had a higher prevalence than the average.

Campylobacter by retailer FSA
Table from FSA study results

Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, said it was good to see some retailers getting to grips with Campylobacter.

“However, we want to see all of them pulling together to achieve real and lasting reductions,” ​he said.

“I am also pleased that we are starting to see retailers and processors being open with consumers about what they are doing to tackle the problem and about the impact their interventions are having on the chickens they are selling.”

BPC: Pleased to be seeing progress

John Reed, British Poultry Council (BPC) chairman, said: “We are pleased to be seeing progress made after years of effort and the investment of tens of millions of pounds. There is still a lot of work to do but these results show that we are moving in the right direction.”

The BPC has been working with regulators and retailers since 2009 to better understand and combat Campylobacter in chickens.

This co-operative work is overseen by the Acting on Campylobacter Together (ACT) Board, with representatives from regulators, retailers, and processors.

Richard MacDonald, ACT Board chairman, said Campylobacter is a very complex bacterium that exists naturally in the environment. 

“We have made great strides in our understanding and the interventions now available extend from farm to fork. We are confident that the creativity and innovation being brought to bear will drive further progress.”​  

Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, said: “Some retailers have significantly reduced levels of campylobacter, so the pressure is on the others to explain why they have missed these jointly agreed targets. The government and the FSA must ensure all supermarkets step up to the plate​.”

Testing laboratories were the five Public Health England (PHE) Food, Water and Environmental Microbiology Laboratories, as well as the Agri-Food Biosciences Institute (AFBI) Laboratory in Northern Ireland.

Chicken samples tested were examined using the enumeration method based on ISO/TS 10272-2:2006 Microbiology of food and animal feeding stuffs - Horizontal method for detection and enumeration of Campylobacter spp. - Part 2: Colony-count technique.

Enumeration using direct plating with a detection limit of 10 cfu/g of neck-skin, or per swab sample, was used. 

Associating Campylobacter with chicken

Meanwhile, a University of Manchester study has found that almost three-quarters of consumers do not associate Campylobacter with the chickens they buy.

Professor Dan Rigby said: Following the headlines - one year ago - about the amount of contaminated chicken on supermarket shelves, we surveyed 900 people and found that only 28% associated Campylobacter with poultry and most still significantly underestimated the rate of contamination of chickens for sale in the UK.

“These findings show there is still a huge amount of work to be done to reduce the problem of Campylobacter infection; a problem which costs the UK around £900m annually.”

Less than half (40%) said they would change their behaviour at all as a result of the news, most citing changes to the way they handled or cooked chicken.

Consumers associated Salmonella with chicken (75%), then E. coli (50%), before Campylobacter (28%) and Listeria (21%).

The study was part of the Enigma Project led by the University of Liverpool and funded by the Medical Research Council, Natural Environment Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council and FSA. 

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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