/ Food & Drink, Health

Clamp down on Campylobacter

Raw chicken legs

National Food Safety Week is a chance to highlight the dangers present in the food we buy. Which? is calling on supermarkets to be more transparent about their testing and food safety controls.

Campylobacter isn’t an easy word to say, but the dangers of contaminated chicken are very easy to understand. Hundreds of thousands of us fall victim to food poisoning every year, often because of Campylobacter in our chicken.

Half of chickens contaminated

You may recall that we previously campaigned to Make Chicken Safe, calling on supermarkets to up their standards to bring down potentially lethal levels of Campylobacter. And we saw some positive improvements with some retailers significantly reduce levels of Campylobacter.

While we decided to close this campaign at the end of last year, we continue to push for further improvements. Well what better time than in National Food Saftey Week to send a letter to the UK’s supermarkets, calling for improvements to transparency to help shoppers make more informed choices:

The start of the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) National Food Safety Week is a timely opportunity to highlight that Campylobacter continues to be the main cause of food poisoning in the UK and needs to be tackled. The FSA estimates there are around a quarter of a million cases each year.

While you and other supermarkets have demonstrated that it is possible to put measures in place across the production chain to reduce Campylobacter in chickens, levels remain unacceptably high. Around half of chickens are still contaminated and people continue to fall ill as a result.

We have now reached a vital cross-road in the ongoing fight against this potentially deadly bug. We believe it is time for much greater transparency from retailers about your own testing and the extent to which the controls put in place are proving effective.

The FSA’s target and its retail survey have been fundamental to keeping the focus on reducing levels of contamination. But this survey costs the FSA three quarters of a million pounds a year. While the Agency pauses to review its approach and methodology, we’re calling on retailers to shoulder greater responsibility and pro-actively publish information about your own test results.

If done in line with FSA protocols, this would provide consumers with a fair way of assessing your progress compared to other retailers. It would also show your level of commitment to your customers by reducing the chances that they could be affected by this bug.

Which? is a firm believer in the testing and future monitoring of Campylobacter in chickens and we have been very vocal in our support for reducing levels to give consumers reassurance that the chicken they buy is safe to eat.

I look forward to meeting with you and discussing this in more detail.

Yours sincerely

Alex Neill

Director of Policy, Campaigns and Communications

Supermarkets need to do more

The FSA is doing what it can, but supermarkets must also step up to the plate, they too have a huge role to play in controlling contamination and informing their customers about potential risks.

Do you have concerns about the contamination levels found in supermarket chickens? Would more transparency about food testing change the way you shop?

Comments
Member

If battery hens and “barn hens” are kept in inhumane conditions that are not natural to birds which , from what I have watched over many years -ie- they like to move around an area pecking at fallen leaves stones etc ,instead of up to their legs in their own sh*t , then what do you expect ? I remember the days of going to a farm picking a chicken that was roaming round the farm and field and the farmer killing it . No problem with upset stomach or food poisoning . Okay bigger demand ,bigger production but how about a bit of humanity , its still a living creature . This isnt going to go away and until either more natural methods of living for the birds is introduced or industrial poultry production is done in more hygiene conditions for the birds then this will be never-ending. Birds dont normally eat their own sh*t .

Member

Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK and is considered to be responsible for around 280,000 cases each year, and to be the cause of 100 fatalities. For most people, a campylobacter infection is unpleasant but a small percentage develop Guillain–Barré syndrome which can take months to recover from. A friend of mine has not regained the use of her hands many months after a campylobacter infection, and still requires support to walk any distance – all thanks to a meal containing chicken.

The well known danger is undercooked chicken, which is relatively easy to avoid. There is also the risk of contamination of both cooked food and food eaten raw (such as salads) with juices from uncooked chicken. That means that even if you avoid chicken in a restaurant etc, there is a risk that your meal could make you sick.

I was disappointed when Which? ended their ‘Make Chicken Safe’ campaign, so I am surprised and delighted to see this new Convo and Alex Neill’s letter.

The Food Standards Agency was doing a good job in arranging independent quarterly testing of ‘fresh’ chicken sold by the major supermarkets, although it was not comprehensive and completely ignored chicken used by fast food outlets, which are major users, chicken products such as diced chicken, frozen chicken and other poultry known to present a risk to public health. The biggest setback is that the FSA has decided to let the supermarkets commission their own testing of chicken for campylobacter. The FSA does not let catering establishments organise inspection of their food hygiene, so I do not understand why they trust supermarkets to carry out tests for campylobacter.

I have no doubt that I could deal with a supermarket chicken safely, since I’m a (retired) microbiologist, but I don’t buy chicken because I don’t want to support an industry that has allowed the campylobacter problem to grow over the years and put in little effort to deal with the problem until forced to do so. The EU has resisted treatment of chicken with chlorine bleach or peroxyacetic acid, but if the UK is to leave the EU following the referendum I expect that the industry will want to move to chemical treatment to help control campylobacter, as is done in the US.

Member

Duncan has rightly mentioned one of the problems of intensive farming. Poor standards in the processing of carcasses means that contamination is spread from contaminated birds to others.

Another issue is the widespread use of proton pump inhibitors such as lansoprazole and other drugs that suppress production of gastric acid. This acid is one of our defences against food poisoning, so anyone under treatment is at greater risk.

Member

You hit the “nail on the head ” wavechange with proton pump inhibitors as when I was much younger I had a major stomach operation that is no longer performed in this country except under emergencies . I have been on acid reducers for may decades , but they were useless up until those PPI,s came out and I was put on them and one of the downsides was that it left you more liable to infection another long term problem was that they could cause stomach cancer . While that was “raging ” in medical circles I had to attend hospital to make sure I hadnt contracted it. While stomach acid can cause problems like heart burn or if you suffer from Zollinger Ellison syndrome , for which I was tested twice in my life it is better to have stomach acid than to have very little.

Member

Proton pump inhibitors are very effective and have been handed out like sweeties. Anyone on long-term treatment should be taking the minimum possible dose and this should be monitored to minimise the cancer risk you mention, Duncan. According to friends in the medical profession, this isn’t happening. I wonder how many GPs appreciate the increased risk of food poisoning when they prescribe acid-suppressing drugs.

Member

One major contributor to food poisoning in general, however, is believed to be the restriction we impose – often culturally – on which animals we eat. Apart from sheep, cows, pigs and hens there’s not much else, other than sea foods, and even there we’re often too picky. Because of this our bowel flora and fauna have become far more limited than they were centuries ago and correspondingly our immune systems less capable.

The other issue is that we’re often too protective of our children, stopping them eating dirt and insects, for instance, when there’s a great deal of evidence that suggests that’s a very healthy process.

Member

It is very difficult to establish why humans have become more susceptible to infection and allergies. Widespread use of antibiotics is likely to have had a major effect on bowel flora and there is no doubt that this has contributed to antibiotic resistance.

I should have acknowledged that campylobacter is an organism that is present in the environment and that chicken is not the only cause of human infections, but there is little doubt that poultry presents the greatest risk. The supermarkets have told us of the various ‘interventions’ that they are using to cut down campylobacter contamination of their chicken, but these have been introduced since the industry was shamed by the publication of campylobacter figures by the FSA.

Member

wavechange -I dont find it at all difficult to work out why people are now more susceptible to infection and allergies and I am sure I said it before to a “hail ” of abuse – from “Angry ” of Croydon etc as I blamed the parents for “protectionism ” like MY ! little Jean/Johnny is not allowed out the house to play in the dirt and words to that effect . Apart from DNA where do you think children develop a resistance to infection ?? by getting childhood illnesses .We are organic human beings a small step up from animals but you dont see all those animals in jungles dying from disease ,why because they have built up a resistance to it –Naturally ,not synthetic injections . As a child I caught every known childhood disease because I got up to my knees in mud /water of streams / eating wild berries / etc etc and while organically I was unhealthy every time I cut myself I healed very quickly , no abscesses etc .