Latest results show decline in Campylobacter levels on retail chicken

FSA promises new Campylobacter survey but undecided on testing method

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Foodborne Campylobacter is estimated to make more than 280,000 people ill each year in the UK and is the biggest cause of food poisoning
Foodborne Campylobacter is estimated to make more than 280,000 people ill each year in the UK and is the biggest cause of food poisoning

Related tags Campylobacter jejuni Food standards agency

Campylobacter contamination on fresh whole chilled chickens in the UK has dropped again in the final update using current testing methods.

FSA said it will begin a new survey in the summer, with a different way of testing Campylobacter levels on chicken. First results, which will rank retailers, are due in January 2017.

However, the agency has not yet decided what methods it will use.

The pathogen was present on 50% of chicken samples in the period from January to March this year, down from 71% in the equivalent quarter of the previous year and 59% compared to last quarter.

A total of 9.3% tested positive for the highest level of contamination, more than 1,000 colony forming units per gram (cfu/g), down from 21.8% for the three months from December 2014 to February 2015 and 11% from the last quarter.

It found 4.2% of packaging samples were positive for Campylobacter and 0.1% of packaging samples had a level higher than 1,000 cfu/swab.

Neck skin issue

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said test methods it had used could not be relied upon to give accurate retailer comparisons, which is why the latest update does not include such data.

Results had come from measuring the pathogen on the neck skin of the chicken – as it is generally the most contaminated part.

However, some processors are removing it before birds are on supermarket shelves which makes comparison difficult as chicken samples contain varying amounts.

Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, said: “These results are moving in the right direction and I am delighted with progress. It shows what can be done by a real commitment to tackle this bug and I am encouraging industry to go even further, more quickly, to continue to get the numbers down.”

It examined 1,009 samples of whole chickens bought from UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers.

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

Elspeth Macdonald, Food Standards Scotland (FSS) deputy chief executive, said: “FSS is committed to on-going research to improve our understanding of the most important causes of Campylobacter in humans in the Scottish population, and I welcome the improvement in these latest results.

“Improving the health of consumers in Scotland is a key priority for FSS and we look forward to on-going collaboration with the FSA and industry, to continue moving in a positive direction.”

Alex Neil, Which? director of policy and campaigns, said: "Despite the work by the regulator and the industry to reduce Campylobacter in chickens, levels remain too high and it still poses a significant risk to the public.

“We want to see much greater ​​transparency from the supermarkets on their own testing and ​the action they are ​​taking to keep their customers safe from this bug.”

Campylobacter antibiotic resistance

Meanwhile, the Finnish Food Safety Authority (Evira) was involved in a study​ which confirmed previous findings of low antibiotic resistance to Campylobacter of production animals in Finland.

Campylobacter is most commonly transmitted to humans through food, and broilers are considered the key source of infection of Campylobacter jejuni.

Satu Olkkola, senior researcher, said the study included determining antimicrobial susceptibility to six types of antibiotics.

“The resistance to each type of antibiotic was studied by using isolates obtained from both humans and animals.

“The results of the study showed that approximately five per cent of Campylobacter jejuni in broilers, nearly 17% of Campylobacter jejuni in bovines and almost 12% of Campylobacter jejuni in humans were resistant to at least one of the studied types of antibiotic.”

The study comprised 850 Campylobacter jejuni pure cultures, or isolates, of which 459 originated from broilers and 120 from bovines. 95 of the isolates originated from infected humans. It also included isolates from natural waters, wild birds and a zoo.

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