FSA assessing analytical options ahead of Campylobacter survey restart

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

FSA retail survey on Campylobacter in chicken and other work
FSA retail survey on Campylobacter in chicken and other work

Related tags Campylobacter Chicken

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) is trialling ‘several alternative approaches’ to detect Campylobacter on whole fresh chickens ahead of recommencing a retail survey next month.

The agency would not tell us which methods are being looked at but said the work will be completed soon and evaluated with a ‘workable protocol’ in time for the survey starting in August.

The FSA published the latest test results on Campylobacter in fresh shop-bought chickens in May.

Overall findings from 1,009 chickens sampled from January to March 2016, showed that half were positive at any level of contamination and almost one in 10 chicken skin samples showed values above 1000 cfu/g.

It only included overall industry figures, as opposed to a breakdown by retailers, because different approaches to trimming of neck skin by processors (a welcomed intervention because the neck skin is the most contaminated part) meant such a comparison was no longer robust.

Survey with revised protocol

The agency intends to re-commence the retail survey from next month under the revised protocol.  

An FSA spokesperson told us it was working with Public Health England in trialling alternative approaches to the existing way of detecting Campylobacter on whole fresh chickens.

“This is because we want to ensure we get the most robust data possible on Campylobacter on chicken regardless of the different approaches to the trimming of the neck skin by the various processors.  

“This work is due for completion in early July and will be assessed by the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food Campylobacter sub-group as well as representatives from the Acting on Campylobacter Together Board to ensure that the revised protocol is the best it can be. 

“The expectation is that a workable protocol can be drawn up and implemented in time to recommence our surveillance in August.”

The first results can be expected in January 2017 and will include a breakdown of results attributed to the major retailers.

Campylobacter in Scotland

Meanwhile, Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has been funding research with the University of Aberdeen to improve understanding of the main causes of Campylobacter infection in the Scottish population.

Results indicate the types identified in human infection are most closely associated to those in raw chicken (60-80%), cattle (10-23%), sheep (7-24%), pigs (0-8%) and wild birds (2-6%).

Work has progressed to evaluating the effects of targeted end-of-line interventions at an unnamed Scottish poultry processing plant.

A sampling plan undertaken by FSS comprises sampling five to ten chickens (whole birds and neck flaps) per week that will be tested to determine Campylobacter prevalence.  

The project also aims to archive 300 isolates (~400 samples) and do whole genome sequencing (WGS) on them during this summer.

FSS shall establish which farms supply the plant and use WGS to follow specific sequence types from the host reservoir from the farm, through processing and retail, and determine how these relate to the isolates which are identified in clinical samples in Scotland.

The research project is due for completion in May 2017 and it is hoped findings will demonstrate how targeted interventions lead to a reduction and change in the types of Campylobacter in chicken detected at the plant and show an impact on public health in Scotland.

On-farm and consumer projects

An on-farm Campylobacter testing project to increase awareness amongst independent broiler farmers has concluded with a report to be published soon.

The work, co-funded by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the FSA, used 3,480 usable samples from 220 UK independent broiler farms within the final multivariate analyses.

Gary Ford, NFU chief poultry adviser, said he was happy with the uptake from broiler farmers representing over 1,200 broiler sheds.

“My aims at the outset were to raise awareness of Campylobacter amongst our members in the independent sector; to raise awareness of testing for Campylobacter; for farmers to identify their own flock status; to identify some of the key risk factors behind flock colonisation; to share that data and finally for broiler famers to change some of their practices in light of those identified risk factors.

“I believe that we have met those aims in part measured by the number of participating farms and in part measured by feedback from participating farmers both expressed in our post ACT-NFU survey and from feedback on my travels meeting broiler members.”

It found increased bird age had a positive correlation with Campylobacter colonisation and female birds potentially had a protective factor, possibly due to males being relied upon to get heavier, resulting in more females being removed at an early stage.

The analysis showed broiler houses with wooden frames provided a protective factor, potentially because of natural antimicrobial resins in wood. It also highlighted the need for further investigation in using prebiotics as a potential factor for colonisation.

Tim Chandler, higher scientific officer with the FSA’s Foodborne Disease Control Team, said he felt the work was successful.

“I also feel it has been a positive move in helping farmers to observe what is happening on their farms. If independent farms continue to sample outside the project, this could ultimately help to drive down Campylobacter levels on-farm.”

The FSA has also been working with UK consumers to understand acceptance of levels of Campylobacter contamination in chickens at retail sale.

Using stimulus materials such as the FSA Campylobacter infographic and data tables from the retail chicken survey, the agency has explored through iterative focus groups, what informed participants would consider an acceptable level/range of contamination on chickens at retail.  

It combined these findings with quantitative surveillance using an online omnibus survey to determine the prevalence of attitudinal groups from the focus groups, and to gather consumer views on the retail chicken survey.

The work by TNS-BMRB on behalf of the FSA will report findings later this year.

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