/ 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?


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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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I welcome this new Conversation and applaud the letter to the supermarkets. My feeling is that if their response, collectively or individually, is unsatisfactory Which? must be prepared to advise the British public to stop buying ‘fresh’ chicken and explain why.

While building up healthy immunity from infection during childhood is a good thing it also has the potential to lead to illness so I don’t endorse the ‘play in the dirt’ approach unconditionally. The strategic way to prevent infection is to improve poultry husbandry and processing so far as possible to eliminate contamination and cross-contamination at every stage of the chain from egg production to putting the meat on the plate. The supermarkets are at the heart of the food chain and can influence behaviour at both ends so their response to Which?’s letter will be critical.

I would be very proud of Which? if it did advise people to avoid buying chicken, but doubt that this will happen.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the supermarkets made much of an attempt to address the growing problem of campylobacter food poisoning until there was talk about testing fresh chicken sold by retailers. I agree that improvements at each stage could achieve a great deal. Thankfully, most of the retailers use the same processing companies, so improvements will be shared.

It is not necessary to completely eliminate campylobacter to greatly reduce the risk of food poisoning. Our bodies are designed to cope with low level contamination by bacteria and the problem is when our defence systems are overwhelmed by large numbers of bacteria. Fortunately the focus has moved from the percentage of contaminated birds to the percentage of those that are highly contaminated, which is a more useful indicator of risk to health.

It seems a pity to have such a one-sided intro without reference to information given by the FSA, including in a previous conversation conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/fsa-campylobacter-chicken-supermarket-q-and-a/

They describe the success that has been achieved, the difficulty of the problem of dealing with a widespread natural organism, and the way they are working with retailers and producers to tackle the problem. Essentially it seems the FSA has been overseeing a number of different types of experimental interventions at processors, necessarily over a longish programme, to help determine which are likely to be most effective to introduce across the board into production. We should give them all credit for this. However, if Which? have other proposals that would help, I expect the FSA would welcome them.

I asked the FSA some time ago why they did not incorporate retailers independent test results along with their own as that would greatly increase the sample size. They replied they are now going to do that by setting a testing protocol for all labs to follow to ensure results are obtained on the same basis. The retailers results will be published by the FSA once the latest test regime produces data and as in the past this appears to be very transparent. What which? has asked for in their letter is what the FSA have already said they would be doing back in March. The FSA will publish the retailers results so there seems no point in Which? asking individual retailers for this information, particularly as the tests need to follow the identical protocols being set down by the FSA.

It is a shame to decry the efforts of those trying to deal with campylobacter, and making real progress as the FSA describes – their website is a good source of information. Some automatically condemn any efforts made by industry and retailers seemingly on principle, which is both unfair and hardly advances the argument. But if they again know of better ways to tackle the problem then contact the FSA; I have found them to be very receptive.

If worried then don’t buy chicken, but you can avoid a problem by cooking chicken correctly to destroy any campylobacter.

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“If worried then don’t buy chicken, but you can avoid a problem by cooking chicken correctly to destroy any campylobacter.”

As I have explained repeatedly, there is still the danger of cross contamination of cooked food and salads etc. with raw chicken juice laden with bacteria. A home cook may take appropriate measures but there is no guarantee that a restaurant will, and many cases of food poisoning are associated with eating out.

I could have gone on to say that if you are concerned about restaurant or takeaway hygiene then avoid chicken, but assumed that was taken for granted. Kitchen hygiene is important, not just for chicken but for other meats. I also understand frozen chicken is pretty well free from campylobacter. The FSA website has a lot of information including advice on how to handle chicken.

Campylobacter is present in many countries who are also grappling with the problem. If an acceptable magic solution was that easy then I presume it would be taken up by all producers. There is not – to my knowledge, but someone may know otherwise .

The inference in some of this Convo is that somehow the UK producers and retailers are resisting or avoiding remedies and writing a letter to them will put all that right. We need solutions, so if anyone has ideas as to how to deal with it better than the FSA can it would be useful to publish them. Universities have been contracted to carry out research projects; as far as I am aware they have not come up with remedies yet either.

Even if you avoid chicken when eating out you are still at risk because meat juices can contaminate cooked food and food such as salads that do not require cooking. Food hygiene inspections frequently identify risk of cross contamination in commercial premises. I have explained this before.

Since the first FSA survey of retailers there has been some reduction in campylobacter contamination, offering evidence that progress can be made. The pressure needs to be kept up and the decision to let the companies handle their own testing is a considerable setback in my view. The poor handling of addressing the problem of tumble dryer fires and the VW Group emissions problems clearly demonstrate the need for external intervention rather than leaving companies to sort out problems of their own creation.

I agree with you absolutely malcolm_r. It is a shame that the FSA side had to provided by a subscriber.

As is traditional in these campylobactor Conversations I would point out that the ratio of meals with chicken eaten is yet again not covered other than the incidence in big figures “hundreds of thousands”.
– It is by far the commonest eaten meat in the UK and if you eat it as much as I do over 100 times a year and say 50 million eat at that rate that is 5,000,000,000. [Say one incidence in 1700 meals?]
– there are many potential dangers in life BUT we cannot EVER guarantee complete safety
– the more rigorous the guarding against any potential problem you pay increasingly higher costs
– the incidence of campylobactor in household pets would seem a worthwhile survey to establish if in fact overly close contact by some owners is actually a common cause or not.
– the number of repeat sufferers would be interesting to see if there was a learning case

As you can understand statistics are a powerful tool to draw out potentially interesting facts. Given the weekly medical statistics [NOIDS] perhaps Which? could sponsor a researcher .

From the FSA:
“the FSA is encouraged by the recent significant improvements in Campylobacter levels”

“With the amount of work and commitment being done by industry and government to reduce the levels of campylobacter in chickens, and the recent encouraging sampling results, we would expect the target to be met in the near future. Particularly the retail survey results, demonstrate already the real progress being made by the industry”

“There is a growing list of interventions that have been developed and then implemented at scale, in different combinations, by different supply chains from farm to retail. These are having a demonstrable impact on the levels of contamination we are finding in the retail survey.”

“Additionally, in the longer-term, we will be asking industry to conduct their own testing and to publish their results to an agreed set of standards prescribed and maintained by us.” The FSA are seemingly a very competent organisation and I am sure will deal with this properly. The very large increase in the amount of data that results can only speed up the knowledge required to improve the production of safer chicken.

So progress is apparently more significant than a mere “some”. Let’s not continually downplay what is being done simply to make more of this problem. Generating the “scare stories” that have been produced in the past does not help the situation. Putting forward constructive proposals and doing some hard work to improve matters will.

Tumble driers and VW have no relevance to chickens.

The FSA, unusually, are very open about there meetings which are open to the public. The Agenda for the July meeting is available.

It is very interesting to see what they are going to be checking for this coming year …. including plastic rice!

For the benefit of those new to this discussion, have a look at the video posted on this page: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/27/dirty-chicken-scandal-campylobacter-eight-out-10-uk-birds-supermarkets-asda Hopefully this is highly untypical but it gives an insight into what could happen on a bad day. In intensive chicken processing, even uncontaminated carcasses can become contaminated with faeces from the bowels of contaminated birds.

The fact that some reduction in campylobacter contamination has been achieved since the introduction of testing does show that there is scope for more effort. A friend of mine nearly died as a result of asphyxiation caused by paralysis and after nearly a year is still suffering the consequences of a campylobacter infection. If economics is the only consideration, then it must have cost a considerable amount of money to keep her in hospital for months.

I obviously cannot say what can be achieved by good management throughout the industry can achieve. The solution may be vaccination of chicken so that they do not become carriers of campylobacter, and rapid methods of testing individual birds before they are sent to the abattoir. I wonder if the poultry industry is funding either of these approaches.

To avoid sensationalising this topic I suggest people also read the reports on the FSA website about the real progress that is being made (summarised by them as :
“the FSA is encouraged by the recent significant improvements in Campylobacter levels””.

You can see what interventions are proposed, what research is being done, and rather than react to scare stories, judge from this how best to view the problem and come to your own conclusions.


duncan, maybe this comment was meant for someone else? I have not been involved in a discussion on proton pump inhibitors. 🙂


I am not quite clear as to the rights and wrongs of Which? employed staff providing advice to readers of a particular newspaper. I am not sure if it weakens or strengthens the aim of a product testing charity.

If it is used to convert people into Which? members, contributing to support testing and investigations, then I see no problem. I’d never looked at i News until now – have many others? It seems you subscribe £4.99 a month to access it. Just how much are Which? departing from a Members organisation and charity, supported mostly by their annual subscriptions?

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As Duncan says, Which? is a brand name, and a well known and respected one. We do not know how widely Alex Neill’s letter was publicised but is not the basis of a press release. Perhaps it should have been.

duncan, as I said I hope it increases Which? membership. I just hope Which? continues to focus on its original – as I understand it – role of independent expert investigations, helping consumers make better choices, fighting their corner and both protecting and supporting their rights – “their” being all of us, as we are all consumers.

I just wonder whether a members’ organisation – 1 million of us provide £100 million a year to fund it – can also be a “universal” consumer watchdog, or whether this should be a separate organisation – a charity perhaps – supported by donations, a tax payer funded watchdog or whatever. I would not like Which? to be diverted from its key role by taking on too much that it can’t handle effectively. That key role is of great value to those who pay for it.

We have a European umbrella – BEUC – that covers all consumer groups and maybe we should look to them to them for more powerful campaigning.

I have another concern, that Which? combines a charity and a business where the lines may become blurred, and with criticisms of the extraordinarily high remunerations involved. There is perhaps a possible danger of commercialism influencing policy.

You also say going global is the way forward for a “western progressive company”.
One might also view it in the light of a subscriber based testing organisation losing touch with its paying membership and moving to become a media animal with an angle on consumer matters.

Duncan – You refer to Which? being much quoted in the US which I find surprising, very surprising.

Given the existence of Consumer Reports in the US which is a much more thorough testing body [Xhose excepted and no doubt some others] , like
the weekly Consumerist magazine,

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Hello, there’s some interesting feedback on our approach to media here which I’ll share with the team. As you know Which? operates to make consumers as powerful as the companies they deal with in their day to day lives, that includes offering free, independent and impartial advice to the public – through our own advice services, as well as the media.

Now moving back on to the topic of Campylobacter, did anyone think twice about having a roast chicken yesterday?

Hello Lauren. We eat chicken at least once a week and have done for as long as I can remember. We’ve always handled and cooked it properly with, as far as I know, no ill effects. As it happens yesterday we had steak pie. But I would have had no second thoughts, other than buying from a reputable outlet – M&S is our local and hence regular food shop.

We don’t want to scare people into avoiding chicken do we? Just inform them of the way to handle and cook it safely which should be found on the packaging. The same as not letting raw meat juices of other types get onto other fresh or cooked foods.

I wonder whether our schools educate kids in the basics?

Hello Malcolm, a steak pie is always a good choice! I did in fact have chicken yesterday, so certainly I wasn’t put off. I am, however, more aware of potential contamination and am much more cautious when it comes to handling the packaged meat in supermarkets and preparing raw food at home. I definitely was taught about safe food preparation in school, but don’t ever recall being warned about contamination packaging

As Dieseltaylor has pointed out, the Food Standards Agency has a considerable amount of information on their websites. Watching a video of one of their meetings I learned of the intention to pass on the responsibility of campylobacter testing to retailers well before this was mentioned on W?C.

The FSA invites input on various topics. I recall that they asked for comment on the use of D-ribose in foods back in January, but only allowed a week for this.

The FSA are not “passing on the responsibility of campylobacter testing to retailers” as far as I am aware. They are going to add the existing retailers’ testing results to their own, but under a common protocol so all the results are obtained in identical ways. I asked them about the possibility of doing this last year and they indicated then they were considering how best to do it.

The VW emissions problem and other examples of cheating demonstrates the need for independence from the companies. As I have said many times, products tested for Which? are purchased from retailers, just as you or I would do. Involving the manufacturers or retailers could allow selection of individual products for testing. Their independent testing has rightly been pushed as a major benefit of Which? testing.

We hear reports of some Government bodies, the NHS, academic institutions, care homes, local authorities, industry, banks, shops, online retailers, estate agents, solicitors,………………in fact some people and organisations in every walk of life not behaving with the appropriate proprietary. To infer from that that every one of us is incapable of behaving in an honest and decent way is negative in the extreme. Even Which? produces biased reports occasionally, misleading information, product reports that are lacking.

Campylobacter, the subject of this Convo, is being dealt with, in my view, from information supplied by the Food Standards Agency in a sensible, logical and pragmatic way. Involving the retailers is a good thing – they have the means to test (and have already tested) many more samples than the FSA can. Thus they can help produce more meaningful data than the FSA could on its own. That can only help speed up the reduction in campylobacter contamination which is surely in everyone’s interests.

If there are concerns about the FSA’s ability or competence to ensure such data is free from “cheating” then we should ask the FSA directly to comment. Personally, from what I have seen, I don’t believe this is necessary but Which? might do this to put others’ minds at rest (or not).

I would like to see the significant “interventions” investigated, verified and implemented as soon as is possible so the current improvements are enhanced. Safer chicken is the objective. Any proposals to get there quicker would, I’m sure, be welcome in this Convo and by the FSA.

The Food Standards Agency has published the latest results from its survey of campylobacter on fresh shop-bought UK-produced chickens. The survey reports that 6.5% of chickens tested positive for the highest level of contamination. This is down from 9.3%, for the same period last year.

Alex Neill, our Managing Director of Home Products and Services, said:

‘It is encouraging to see that overall levels of campylobacter in chickens are falling and that major retailers are meeting the FSA’s target.

‘However there is no room for complacency as the survey shows that levels can vary greatly depending on where consumers shop and in many cases over half of chickens are still contaminated.’

The full FSA results – including supermarket breakdowns – can be found here: https://www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2017/16235/further-reduction-levels-of-campylobacter-chicken

It is heartening to see a 30% reduction in the more highly contaminated samples, but it will be interesting to see if this improvement continues over the warmer months. Hopefully it is a sign that the “interventions” introduced in the industry are working in what is a naturally-occurring problem that is difficult to deal with and probably cannot be eradicated.

The large retailers generally test much larger numbers for their sampling; I hope that they will publish their own results also.

As I have mentioned before, I have a friend who suffered from Guillain–Barré syndrome, a rare complication of campylobacter food poisoning after eating chicken in a restaurant. It causes paralysis of the muscles and she survived thanks to ventilation. After two years she is able to walk unaided for short distances but still does not have proper use of her hands.

As Alex Neill has said, there is no room for complacency, but without targets that must be met for companies to be allowed to sell chicken, there is not the pressure to take the action needed to eradicate chicken that is considered highly contaminated. We have only seen improvement because there has been some pressure.

Campylobacter is a natural bacterium that affects many animals, is present in surface water that the ydrink for example, and is difficult to deal with. We should give credit to all those who have devised interventions to trial and introduced the more successful ones into production, giving the reductions in contamination that we have seen over the last few years. The FSA acknowledges the contributions of all concerned and we should be applauding positive progress. We can complain when this progress is not apparent – which at present is not the case.

I don’t believe that nearly enough is being done, Malcolm. I would like to see the industry funding research institutions to develop interventions that can be shared by all. Fortunately there is some sharing of expertise because various supermarkets and other companies use the same processors.

We don’t need to eliminate campylobacter because our natural defences can usually take care of low levels of campylobacter (and most bugs, though there are some exceptions) but it is essential to tackle higher level contamination.

What you see as progress, I see as failure to take the measures needed to adequately tackle a serious health problem.

In an earlier Conversation I mentioned that it had been discovered that providing chickens with clean water rather than water contaminated with faeces was successful in reducing campylobacter contamination. Some interventions are undoubtedly more complicated.

If you look at the FSA’s website (as I’m sure you do) it will be seen that much work has been done on different kinds of “intervention” – ways that campylobacter contamination and reduction might be tackled. Some of these are unsuccessful, others more so, and these were trialled to see what benefits they gave in production. We seem now to have entered the phase of putting these into production practice and hopefully the trial results wi be repeated. We will no doubt see over the next 12 months that covers all seasons of the year.

We are seeing significant improvements. That is good progress if it is sustained.

There are methods of campylobacter reduction – freezing chicken, soaking in chemicals, irradiation for example – that some find unacceptable.

What must be remembered is that campylobacter is destroyed by simply cooking chicken properly.

I’m interested in the subject and do follow developments.

Let’s compare this with a subject that we are agreed on. We are fed-up that retailers usually say that nothing can be done or refer customers to the manufacturer if a product fails soon after the guarantee has expired. They should instead be discussing the possibility that the customer might have a valid claim under the Consumer Rights Act. If I learned that retailers were now handling a third of cases correctly, I would not be happy that good progress is being made. I would want to push harder for action.

Cooking chicken properly will indeed destroy campylobacter but bringing heavily contaminated raw meat into the home presents risk of cross contamination of cooked food and food such as salads that is eaten raw. As we get older, we may not take as much care as we did before mental degeneration had set in.

Please explain what your proposals are to reduce campylobacter more quickly. It could be worth you suggesting them to the FSA; when I have contacted them in the past they have been most helpful and forthcoming. Please keep us informed.

It is important that we understand food hygiene – it embraces much more than this one topic and is essential to our health. Cooking pork properly was once regarded as essential – I don’t know whether it still is. And whilst we can all enjoy rare beef, there is danger in undercooking mince – so beware of the fad for rare beefburgers.

My suggestion is that realistic targets are set for maximum contamination levels for poultry to be sold for human consumption, much in the same way that we have maximum allowable emissions for new cars. Monitoring should be done independently.

Having had contact with the Food Standards Agency on a number of occasions, I agree they are helpful and the information they make available is exemplary. However, the FSA has limited resources and independent monitoring of supermarkets has been cut back, for example.

Mincing meat spreads bacteria on the surface throughout the meat. That is why preservatives are added to sausages and many beefburgers. Tapeworm infection used to be the reason why we were told to cook pork properly. It must be an unpleasant condition to discover but it’s easily treated.

Targets are a normal part of such matters but they must be based on what is realistic. The main objective should be to get as large a reduction as possible, irrespective of targets.

Supermarkets have been given the testing regimes by FSA to do testing of their own products at independent laboratories. The retailers generally test much larger samples than the FSA and can get more precise results. If you doubt the integrity of supermarket’s own testing you could ask FSA for a comment. When I spoke to FSA some time ago, having standardised the testing regime (neck skin removal was introduced for example) they were intending to include the supermarkets results to get a better overall view of progress.

I have already said that targets must be realistic. In the same way that car emissions limits have been revised downwards, the same could be done with campylobacter targets. I have been aware of the risks of campylobacter since about the time I started working in the field of microbiology. Maybe we could have dealt with the problem long before now if it had not been allowed to become so bad that the FSA started warning us of the danger of washing chicken.

Why don’t you study the reasons for doing proper independent testing rather than leaving the retailers to organise it? Please don’t suggest that Which? lets manufacturers do their own product testing according to protocols laid down by Which? 🙂

Which>, of course, no longer do testing, They subcontract it to commercial laboratories. Commercial laboratories also do independent testing for many others, including Campylobacter for industry. The FSA have set the test regime so laboratories conduct the tests and analyse the results in the same way when results need to be compared like for like. The FSA do not have their own laboratories. they publish a list of official feed and food control laboratories in the UK. In the UK, official feed and food laboratories include Public and Agricultural Analyst Laboratories and other microbiological laboratories that undertake work for local authorities (Food Examiners).

Such testing is showing significant improvements in the contamination of chicken due to the commitment of all concerned.

In my view it would be better for the companies to pay for the work to be done and centrally coordinated so we can be assured that there is no possibility of cheating and that the testing has been done under comparable conditions.

There are some peculiarities that deserve comment. For example Marks & Spencer returned the best figures this time round but several months ago they were the worst.

I am aware that Which? don’t run their own testing labs and I understand the reasons.

The concept that all companies set out to cheat and mislead is quite erroneous. Companies research and test to make better products – that is my experience of a number of manufacturing industries that I worked in. There products are very often certified by independent authorities and regularly audited. Many companies use independent laboratories, even if they have their own in-house expertise and test facilities which are essential for innovation and quality control. We regularly used BSI Laboratories, like many others.

Who is saying that ‘all companies set out to cheat’? I don’t want to continue this discussion, Malcolm. 🙁

“The FSA’s annual survey will in future concentrate on smaller retailers, independent traders and market stalls as these are more likely to be supplied by smaller processors.

Heather Hancock, Chair of the FSA, said: “The full year’s results from our third annual survey show the significant progress the industry has made in reducing campylobacter levels in chicken, compared with their starting point. The major retailers are now taking on the responsibility to publish their own results, according to a protocol we have agreed. This is a welcome step towards greater transparency.

“Whilst we will keep a close eye on the performance of bigger retailers, it means the FSA can now focus our efforts on smaller establishments, where” we haven’t yet seen the same level of improvement and where more progress needs to be made.”

The FSA report “New figures from UK surveillance bodies show a 17% decline in the number of laboratory reports of human cases of campylobacter in 2016.”. Hopefully another improvement in 2017.

They also say “The Food Standards Agency used laboratory reports, along with other factors, to estimate what level of decline in human cases could be achieved through our work to reduce campylobacter in chickens. Based on that modelling, we estimate that there are 100,0003 fewer human cases of campylobacter overall. This meets our aim⁴ agreed by our Board, to reduce the number of people getting ill from the food poisoning bug by this amount. Achieving this reduction is estimated to lead to a direct saving to the economy of over £13 million in terms of fewer days off work and NHS costs⁵”
(⁴) The 100,000 goal was based on the assumption of the 9.3 underreporting rate. The target in terms of laboratory reports was 11,000.

(⁵) Based on current costing models.

Latest data (Oct 2017) https://www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2017/16629/final-results-third-annual-retail-surveyIn the last period of the third annual survey, April – July 2017, based on a total of 1,437 chicken samples 5.9% of chickens had high levels of campylobacter (over 1,000 cfu/g) down from 20.1% for the same period in 2014.

This surely is good news that “interventions” have achieved substantial improvements in contamination. Hopefully the reduction in cases of campylobacteriosis reported for 2016 will have been further reduced in 2017.

Chicken from independent shops and butchers still shows a much higher contamination, on average, than the supermarkets.

British retailers to self-report chicken Campylobacter results

“England’s top nine retail grocers are going to begin publishing results of the Campylobacter retail survey of fresh shop-bought chickens produced in the United Kingdom on their store websites.

The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) said the change follows discussions involving the industry and the agency. The retailers will sample and analyze fresh chicken for Campylobacter under “robust protocols established by FSA.”

The plan also ensures the published results will be comparable. In addition, the FSA will have access to the raw data from each retailer to verify the samples and to determine industry averages. The agency has made it clear it reserves the right to comment publically on the results.

Each retailer has committed in writing to follow the protocols. As a consequence of this arrangement, the nine major retailers won’t be in the FSA annual survey. Rather, consumers will be able to track the retailers’ ongoing commitment to Campylobacter reduction.

In light of the significant progress made by the major retailers and producers in taking action to reduce Campylobacter levels in their chicken, FSA’s strategy is now to focus efforts on improvements in smaller establishments.

FSA’s retail survey of fresh chickens is in its fourth year. Small retailers, independent traders, and market stalls — all more likely to be supplied by smaller processors — are its new targets.

The agency says it will move to “encouraging and working with smaller processors.” It says the small operations usually have not made the same level of improvements to their processing lines as the bigger ones. Although these plants account for a smaller share of the market, many supply products to catering operations and local retailers.

In June 2017 I had a long discussion with an Environmental Health Officer who shared my concern about the ongoing campylobacter. He advised me to look us the Food Standard Agency’s document ‘Regulating our future’. His concern was that the intention was to allow the major companies to be essentially self-regulating. I share his view that this was an unwise move if the campylobacter problem was to dealt with effectively.

I do not see any case for complacency and the FSA says that: “Campylobacter prevalence remains too high.” I think it would be best to continue to carry out testing independently. I would not be impressed if Which? asked manufacturers to test their own products for the magazine following published test protocols.

It certainly makes sense to look at smaller companies, which have largely escaped attention so far.

It’s a challenge to find information about campylobacter testing on supermarkets’ websites and after a quick trawl I cannot find a compilation of these data on the FSA website.

We don’t share the same view about testing and the integrity of producers, so perhaps we just agree to differ. Having worked in manufacturing industry and seen first hand how many commercial companies, trade associations and allied organisations behave you can regard me as providing views from either a biased or an informed position. I simply try to give my own views and pass on,and link to, information that I think is relevant.

Independent testing, as proposed for other things like all products of any description, might be attractive if you could trust all the independent laboratories to have properly trained and experienced staff and appropriate equipment. In my experience many such independent labs I visited did not and they are of course set up as profitable enterprises and, no doubt like accountancy firms, want to generate and retain clientelle. And that assumes we have enough of them to satisfy the huge market, which we are nowhere near having in my view.

Many manufacturers have far better facilities and specific to their operation, with staff appropriately specialised and experienced. In the end it seems to me we have to be pragmatic. Supermarkets carried out their own campylobacter tests alongside the FSA, generally with significantly greater sample sizes. The FSA produced a standardised test protocol for them all to follow. Should any evidence emerge to show they any of them are deliberately falsifying results then we can launch an attack. Until then I think it is an eminently sensible arrangement and leaves the FSA to focus on what some of us have thought were worse culprits – the small producers and cooked chicken outlets.

I share Wave’s concern about allowing the manufacturers to Police themselves in that regard. We know, from other industries such as the media, Police and car companies that independent assessment is the only safe way to monitor what’s happening. Companies simply can’t be trusted.

Ian. that is a point of view that you are, of course, entitled to hold. But to regard all “companies” as untrustworthy seems a sweeping statement that could do with substantiation. As in all walks of life – charities, police, armed services, academia, politics, local authorities, manufacturers. service industries, healthcare, education, banking, accountancy, test laboratories……there will always be individual examples where failures are seen to occur. What is rarely reported, of course, are the many instances where they behave with propriety.

My experience within the sector of manufacturing industry I was involved with is what I base my comments on – direct knowledge.

I think our views differed a long time ago, Malcolm. 🙂 Irrespective of integrity, an unknown quantity, it is recognised as good practice to carry out independent assessment. Obviously it is important to carry out checks to make sure that testing labs are performing well and there are various approaches. Would you want to see Which? leave it up to manufacturers to test their products for Which? and submit their results for inclusion in the next magazine? I have no reason to think that anyone is falsifying results but there can be no doubt that independent testing is the gold standard.

The procedure for campylobacter enumeration by counting viable cells is very straightforward and taking samples of chicken skin or swabs will be the most time-intensive part. The first practical my 250 students in my microbiology practical included an experiment involving viable counts, albeit using baker’s yeast rather than an infectious bacterium. It may be that Campden BRI are using an automated process for dilution and plating in their viable counts (I hope so because it’s a bit repetitive) after manually collecting the samples.

What concerns me most is that although high level contamination is still widespread, having the retailers testing their own chicken is no longer high profile, meaning that there is no longer the same pressure to improve as when the FSA was releasing summary information showing the current pecking order of retailers. I have already said that I support looking at small retailers. I believe some of the fast food outlets use frozen chicken and as we have discussed earlier this seems to reduce the extent of contamination.

I accept some of what you say, Malcolm, but I suspect if there’s one thing that experience teaches us it’s that independent assessment is always, always needed. And never more so than in instances where the health of the consumer can be at risk.

Most governments create legislation on a reactive basis; rarely is something put into place to guard against ‘what if’ scenarios. The 1968 Typhus outbreak, traced to contaminated Corned Beef in Scotland, led to a raft of improved food safety measures, and that might not have been prevented even with Independent checks but Independent monitoring instils confidence. And could save lives.

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I’ve been concerned about food poisoning since I was a student and avoided barbecues because it’s easy to eat undercooked chicken. I learned about campylobacter when I started to work with bacteria as a research student. Campylobacteriosis can just be unpleasant but can kill and as I’ve mentioned before a friend suffered from a rare complication that caused paralysis, requiring her to be intubated to save her life. It must be three years now and she can now walk unaided but still does not have full use of her hands. Life is precious and I’m keen that we do our best to protect the citizens of this country, whether that relates to improved measures to combat food poisoning or safer designs of appliances.

I think our views differed a long time ago, Malcolm. 🙂“. That’s no problem with me – conversations without differing views would be rather pointless.

As far as widespread high levels of campylobacter are concerned we would all want those reduced. What is the way to do that? What has the industry and the FSA failed to do that would accomplish a substantial reduction in a naturally-occurring organism?

These are interesting questions, Malcolm. Here are some thoughts.

1. Since the problem affects all retailers, a logical solution would be to work together to find a solution to benefit all companies. One way of doing this would be to fund research (either research institutes or universities) on the basis that the results and conclusions are shared. There has already been cooperation because retailers mainly use the 2 Sisters Food Group and Faccenda plants for processing chicken and interventions help more than one company.

2. Jointly fund development of promising interventions.

3. Don’t patent anything related to safety because this would put company profit ahead of the safety of consumers.

FSA could have tackled the problem long before the extent of contamination was sufficient to warrant issuing advice not to wash chicken. It could have focused on the percentage of heavily contaminated samples as it does now. These are where the danger lies. They could have compiled all the data from testing and made this readily accessible. (I don’t know where to find the most recent data without searching supermarkets’ sites and it looks like existing data has been removed from the FSA website.) They could have specified a standard format for presentation of contamination data rather than letting each company use its own (Compare Marks & Spencer with Morrisons, for example.) They could have fought for continuation of independent testing for reasons discussed earlier.

Referring to naturally occurring organisms is not very helpful because most bugs that have not been genetically manipulated could come under this category. It seems to be used as an excuse for lack of action.

As far as I know there has already been a good deal of research carried out both here and abroad into campylobacter and its mitigation. Work has been underway with the producers on measures to minimise it in processing. As far as I can see much is being done but it is not a problem with an obvious solution. Just gradual improvements as different interventions are trialled. I was simply asking whether there were a solution that you knew of. Otherwise, we deal with poultry, as it improves, with the precautions we know about, or choose not to eat it.

Can you provide links to some peer reviewed articles because I might have missed them? In science we move forward by publishing and sharing valuable information.

The FSA published details of research and the web shows papers from abroad.

I have not seen much peer reviewed research, Malcolm – hence my request.

The guts of chicken can carry enormous numbers of campylobacter, in the same way that our own bowels carry other bacteria. Campylobacter is harmless to the birds but can make us very sick if it gets into our digestive system. A possible solution is to develop a vaccine that will prevent campylobacter accumulating in the guts of chicken. There has been some research in this area. Vaccination has been used to ensure that lightly cooked egg is safe to eat.

If the companies provided our research councils with funding for research in areas such as this, whatever is achieved could be published and available to all of the companies. That seems a better way than carrying on and hoping that contamination rates will gradually fall.

I haven’t looked at this in detail, even then only as a layman. This lists research carried out by, presumably, independent people – largely universities – into campylobacter. The resulting scores – based on the science and value for money – are very variable. It is concerning when a study (well, quite a few) is given 1 out of 5 for science.

Maybe there is a later summary of more recent work.

These look like preliminary research reports rather than formal studies. I have looked some of them before.

In a research paper the authors would be expected to have an Introduction in which previous research was described, normally more general at the start and then focusing on what the most relevant studies have found. This would be followed by a methods section to describe the procedures used in the current study, giving enough information for a competent scientist to repeat the work. Then the results would be presented, accompanied by relevant tables and figures. A discussion section would then look at the significance of the results, not only from the present study but in context of previous research. Each section would normally cite relevant references to earlier work. Research papers are normally peer reviewed – looked at independently by other scientists with knowledge of the subject. Peer review is far from perfect but it does add credibility and the public articles can readily be found with various search tools.

I’m not suggesting that these reports are worthless but I stand by what I said about a lack of published research. I suppose what’s obviously missing is pure rather than applied research.

Malcolm – It’s a while since I trawled the FSA site and I can no longer find documents that were easy to find before. Can you please tell me where you found the document on campylobacter research reports.

What worried me was when the quality of the science involved in a number of university studies was scored 1 out of 5. Does that suggest poor or incompetent supervision, even if some were just preliminary studies? An independent (commercial) lab also scored very poorly. I think had those studies been done by retailers they would have been ridiculed, and quite rightly.

However, the point is there seems to be no acceptable “silver bullet” as some call it. Are we prepared to accept frozen, irradiated or chlorinated chicken as an answer? Or do most people destroy the organism by following the preparation and cooking instructions?

I am careful where I buy our chicken and would beware of markets and butchers, as well as restaurants and fast food outlets, because I do not know how they source and handle chicken. Many undoubtedly do it properly but I welcome the FSA investigation into these retailers so we can get a better idea of how they fare. The came out relatively badly in the original FSA tests.

The site has changed and I’ve also lost my way in it. If I remember rightly I searched on “FSA campylobacter research”.

Thanks – It’s not just me then. I expect that this and other material that has gone will be back soon as the site is rebuilt.

I’m not familiar with research reports being scored in this way. Likely reasons for a poor score are failing to carry out the studies agreed and not submitting a final report by the deadline. Some very good scientists are not very good at meeting deadlines.

The various interventions to improve biosecurity and processing will provide cumulative benefits but the silver bullet could be the result of pure rather than applied science. There has been research on producing a vaccine to prevent the guts of chickens accumulating campylobacter but we are not there yet. We may yet have chlorinated chicken on the shelves thanks to the influence of the US, which we follow in so many ways.

There is certainly a problem with food hygiene in many (but certainly not all) fast food establishments but I know little about their supply. Maybe they use the same supplier that Marks & Spencer and Lidl do.

The FSA report did include a lot of well-scored investigations (3/5 and above) but some of the comments on what were completed but lower scorers were:

The research team appeared to lack some important knowledge about poultry production.

However, there was a distinct lack of data interrogation.

There were concerns with the methodology used as there appeared to be a number of interferences with heat

It was observed that not all of the possible contamination factors were taken into consideration, which significantly impacted on the credibility of this work.

Perhaps the FSA wilol disclose the origins of chicken sampled from the smaller outlets. It does seem to me that the farm and processor are the key players in this. It might pay to have FSA staff do far more unannounced visits, particularly to processors.

We do cop out of these problems when we excuse people “in the know” from “spilling the beans” when they see problems. Clearly they do not want to prejudice their jobs but we should all have a conscience, particularly when health is at risk. I would like to see an independent organisation established to which any of us could pass, in confidence, information on serious misbehaviour, whether in public or private institutions. There must be proper protection and sanctions against any organisation that victimises such people if they are discovered, There have been a number of such instances in the NHS and local authorities I also believe we should ban non-disclosure agreements accompanying a pay-off when someone loses their job for being forthcoming.

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BBSRC is one of our government funded research councils that provides grants for research, often in areas of strategic importance. Obtaining research council funding is competitive and their grants are more prestigious than some other sources of research funding for academic research. It’s amazing how much things have changed and international collaborative research is now supported.

It is impossible to independently assess everything, even if it is believed there are sufficiently qualified independent assessors or laboratoroes to take it on, which there are not. Try the major accountancy firms. Even then, they are only sampling. It is up the to company/organisation concerned to observe the standards the rest of the time.

I believe that the workable approach is to lay down standards and regulations but then police them properly, with appropriate sanctions if anyone is found to be misbehaving. That is where our present system falls down. The ISO 9001 quality standard is tailored by each company to its operation, approved by an assessor and then operated routinely by that company. An audit takes place from time to time, but the company or organisation is presumed to work within it the rest of the time.

I’m quite prepared to allow reputable retailers to do their own testing, as many did from the start alongside the FSA. The latter is overseeing what goes on and will no doubt speak up if any problems arise. However, as I think many of these firms have integrity, I hope nothing unpleasant will result.

If you believe that it is not possible to carry out independent testing of chicken sold by retailers then I would appreciate if you would provide evidence, Malcolm. Recall that the FSA has done this for several years. I think it would be wise to test more samples and we are agreed that the tests should be extended beyond the major retailers.

Of course it is possible. That is not the issue. The FSA seem confident to leave routine ongoing testing to the major supermarkets while they look at parts of the market they are more concerned about. I assume they have good reason.

And Government departments always act in the very best interests of the people, of course.

I don’t have your confidence, Malcolm, and I would like to see independent testing. The 2 Sisters Food Group has a large new lab: https://www.2sfg.com/news/archive/2013/lab-opening-puts-food-safety-first-for-2-sisters/

I am losing confidence in the FSA and feel that they might be being influenced by the government and industry.

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What were the conclusions of the FSA probe? Were the claims of old chickens mixed with fresh ones upheld?

So long as it is fit for human consumption and correctly labelled there is nothing wrong with selling horse meat.

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Indeed, it’s thought introducing horse meat into the commercial chains here could improve the lot of horses generally. And why stop at horses?

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Does anyone believe that a company that substitutes horse meat for beef will have ensured that it has gone through the rigorous safety testing process required to ensure meat is safe? I doubt it.

Duncan mentioned the closure of a plant owned by the 2 Sisters Food Group. Prior to the closure, undercover investigation for the Guardian and ITV showed evidence of ‘use by’ dates being changed at another of the company’s West Midland’s plant: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/sep/28/uks-top-supplier-of-supermarket-chicken-fiddles-food-safety-dates The factory had attracted attention several years earlier when there were prosecutions for food fraud.

The closure of the Glasgow plant followed identification of problems by Tesco: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/dec/19/tesco-2-sisters-plant-scotland-asda-sainsburys-m-and-s

It concerns me that none of the supermarkets have, as far as I am aware, stopped using this company.

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I’m glad that you have not identified the factory, Duncan. Without supporting evidence it could be considered libel. When you mentioned the closure of the 2 Sisters Food Group’s plant, that and the examples of poor practice are well documented. It is well established that people are reluctant to report what they witness at work because of the possible consequences.

So far as I am aware its not the job of the FSA to enforce against hygiene and food-handling non-compliances. I believe this is the responsibility of the relevant public health authority – which will no doubt be guided by the FSA. The sufficiency and quality of manufacturing inspections could be a relevant issue here.