Testing was suspended in April so methods could be updated to ensure relevant results.
Existing laboratory methodology involved measuring the amount of Campylobacter on 25g of chicken neck skin, generally the most contaminated part of the bird.
An increasing number of processors had been trimming back the neck skin during processing which introduced a greater variation between the samples and made fair retailer-to-retailer comparisons and those between previous quarterly results difficult.
Revised testing method
The FSA told us the new method will involve measuring Campylobacter on the 10g portion of neck skin only.
“Data from the chicken sampled in the Year 2 revealed that a 10g portion of neck skin, rather than a 25g portion, is still achievable for the largest majority of collected retail chicken samples,” it said.
“Hence, a 10g portion was tested as part of the trial as well as smaller portions of neck skins (down to 5g) where 10g could not be achieved by neck skin. In addition, the data was then compared to results from a sample of the back skin and from a wash of the whole chicken carcase of the same chicken.
“Results were analysed for feasibility, practicality and reliability in the laboratory as well as for the re-establishment of data robustness and comparability of Campylobacter contamination between retailers.”
The agency said the analytical protocol allows for a sample of between 5-10g of neck skin (weighed accurately as the result is given per g), and trial data suggests it may be possible to go as low as 1g of neck skin (however, due to limited data it does not currently recommend it).
FSA added there are physical constraints within the slaughtering process as to how much neck skin can be removed and it is confident the methodology will not need to be re-assessed in the near future.
The updated testing methodology was established with Public Health England.
It was assessed by the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food Campylobacter sub-group and representatives from the Acting on Campylobacter Together Board.
The survey will start this month until July 2017 and sample 4,000 fresh whole chilled chickens from UK retailers and independent shops.
Results will be published quarterly with comparisons between the retail chains. The first set is expected in January 2017.
Campylobacter is estimated to be responsible for more than 280,000 cases of food poisoning each year.
The survey started in 2014 and results were published quarterly.
By the beginning of this year the number of chickens that tested positive for the highest level of contamination (those with more than 1000 colony forming units per gram of chicken neck skin), fell from 19% in December 2014 to 11% in February 2016.
The current target is less than 10% contaminated at the most highest level.
Consumer research findings
FSA also published research which showed two thirds (66%) of consumers think the industry should continue to reduce Campylobacter beyond the current target at the most highly contaminated level.
Retailers should also be telling customers what proportion of chickens are at this highest level of contamination, according to 75% of those questioned.
Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, said publishing surveillance data on Campylobacter has prompted action from retailers and processors and it is seeing progress.
“Our campaign has also raised awareness of Campylobacter amongst the public and it is good to see from our research that it is customers, and not just the FSA, demanding action and information from retailers. We have always said that consumer power will ultimately push industry action.”
The research found that 76% of people questioned want retailers to be more proactive in telling them what actions they are taking to reduce Campylobacter levels on the raw chicken they sell.
More than half (53%) said that they would start buying chicken from another retailer if their usual shop was found to sell more than the industry average ‘high risk’ chicken.
Geoff Ogle, Food Standards Scotland (FSS) chief executive, said reducing Campylobacter and other foodborne illness is of paramount importance.
“Data from FSA’s surveillance on fresh chicken continues to show retailers and the food industry reducing levels of contamination on fresh chicken and it’s good to see the progress made in recent years.
“With consumers now putting the pressure on retailers and the food industry for action and information, it’s important to maintain effort to reduce Campylobacter in chicken to protect public health.”