/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Supermarket Campylobacter results under the microscope

As you’ll be aware, we’ve been calling on the Food Standards Agency to publish the data that details the levels of Campylobacter per supermarket. Well, today they’ve done just that.

The FSA has published the results of its findings for the main supermarkets. Unfortunately Asda’s samples tested highest for levels of Campylobacter at 78%. This was followed by the Co-operative Food (73%), Morrisons (69%), Waitrose (69%), Sainsbury’s (69%), Marks and Spencer (67%) and Tesco (64%).  The full table of results is below:

FSA Campylobacter results per supermarket

In my last post a number of you asked what people can do to prevent food poisoning – so we’ve published some cooking with chicken tips on our site.

Others asked just how badly the food poisoning affects individuals. We’ve received thousands of comments on this through our petition and wanted to share some of the experiences people have taken the time to share with us.

Campylobacter case studies

A number of our supporters have really been knocked for six with the bug. Alan feels he’s never fully recovered from the food poisoning:

‘A few years ago I was admitted to hospital with severe Campylobacter and was in hospital for two weeks. I was severely very ill. An experience I do not want repeated. I was quite a stocky person & lost a lot of weight. I never regained the weight.’

Unfortunately Campylobacter hit the whole of Julie’s family:

‘Horrific incident when my young twins, small son and my husband and I all got Campylobacter from chicken cooked by my elderly mother in law.’

And Sandra told us:

‘I ended up in hospital with this as the doctor had to record my details to send to the health board to report my hospitalization. I was admitted for three days and had to go on a drip. I could only eat light meals when I came home and it wasn’t until another two months before I felt okay. If supermarkets aren’t following health rules when it comes to the food standards they should be held accountable for this as people such as the elderly have weak immune systems besides others. They are putting lives at risk.’

We want to see supermarkets not only publishing effective plans that tackle these scandalously high levels but also demonstrate they’re taking real action to make chicken safe. So, will today’s publication of the supermarkets’ levels of Campylobacter affect how and where you shop? And do you think supermarkets and poultry producers are doing enough?


Now that we have clear evidence of how serious the problem is, perhaps the public will tell our government that effective action must be taken to deal with campylobacter.

It is disappointing but hardly surprising that the supermarkets suffer the same levels of campylobacter, given the restricted number of major suppliers. I would have thought it would be more relevant to check these suppliers – it is here, and in the production units, that the major changes will have to be made when we have solutions to significantly reduce the incidence of campylobacter.

Does anyone have a magic solution?

I have, hot on the heels of the FSA report, received a request from Which? to support their petition headed “Infected chicken on sale”. I confess this kind of tabloid-style headline makes me worry about Which’s? stance as a sensible rersposible consumer organisation and in the heat of the moment I sent them an email:

“Once again you are asking me to sign a petition with little explanatory information. You make it sound as if it is easy to eradicate campylobacter and the supermarkets are simply not trying. This is not the case – campylobacter is not easy to eradicate, efforts are being made Europe wide, including our FSA, supermarkets and suppliers. I believe your campaign is unfairly criticising supermarkets, in danger of being a scaremongering campaign and not of the balanced fairly argued case that Which? should be aspiring to as a responsible organisation. Do you have a solution to eradicating campylobacter?
I believe whilst means of reducing campylobacter are being sought we should be getting a message across to the public at large to ensure they handle and cook chicken properly. You could also campaign to have fast food chicken outlets and restaurants tested to ensure they also cook safely.”

Having re-read it I don’t feel any differently. If Which? or anyone else has an immediate remedy that will eradicate this long-standing problem then I will eat my words (along with properly cooked chicken).

If Which? was making false claims I would support your view, Malcolm. Though the campylobacter problem arises at the growing and processing stages, the supermarkets are happy to sell us potentially dangerous meat.

We are getting more information about the campylobacter problem. Which? is helping raise awareness of it and is pushing for action.

wavechange –

How much knowledge have Which? provided on the other causes of campylobactor?

Other meats are potentially fatal if not cooked and so are nuts that go mouldy , and reheating rice also dangerous.

Emphaising a single meat, avoiding the fact it has been around for decades, don’t you think overall this is actually a rather lightweight column inch exercise rather than a rational information provision?

Obviously the red-tops will cherry pick anything Which? provides but to have a sensationalistic approach within Which? is disappointing. I refer you back to my starting question as an example.

BTW WHich? does do reports ,,,, did do reports of substance food safety They are very active on the “Choice and general food labelling” front but nothing on the dreaded campylobactor! It seems that with BSE we were activated and similarly with horse meat.

I think the reports should be much better made obvious to members.

Food safety Meat safety

Proposals for changes to BSE testing – Which? Response (PDF: 77Kb)
10 May 2011
Which? supported the proposed change to increase the age at which healthy slaughtered cattle are tested from 48 to 72 months, but highlighted the need for effective on-going surveillance and the importance of maintaining other BSE control measures.
EU strategy for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE) – Which? Response (PDF: 57Kb)

06 August 2010
Which? recognises the need for measures to be proportionate but stresses the need for a cautious and science-based approach to any changes to controls and vigilant enforcement.
Consumer priniciples for the modernisation of meat inspection – Which? Briefing (PDF: 50Kb)

01 June 2010
Which? proposed a set of consumer principles which should guide the European Commission’s exercise to modernise meat inspection, ensuring that public safety is the priority.
BSE Report – Which? Report (PDF: 308Kb)

01 June 2010
Which?’s report pulls together key policy developments, scientific insights and statistics for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and related diseases over the last six month period.
Proposed changes to BSE testing – Which? Response (PDF: 38Kb)

03 December 2008
Which? supported a change to the minimum age for BSE testing of cattle slaughtered for human consumption, including fallen stock, to 48 months, and stressed the need for an effective surveillance system to monitor changes in BSE incidence.
Advisory Board for the Delivery of Official Controls (Meat hygiene) – Which? Response (PDF: 34Kb)

15 October 2007
Which? expressed concern about the balance of representation on the Advisory Board for the Delivery of Official Controls and called for greater consumer representation.
Comments on the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy TSE Roadmap – Which? Response (PDF: 80Kb)

01 September 2005
Which? supported a change to the minimum age for BSE testing of cattle slaughtered for human consumption, including fallen stock, to 48 months, and stressed the need for an effective surveillance system to monitor changes in BSE incidence.
Transition from the over thirty months rule to BSE testing (FSA) – Which? Response (PDF: 82Kb)

27 May 2005
Which? expressed some concern about a potential weakening in control measures and called for effective independent oversight of the BSE testing regime.
The future of butcher shop licensing in England – Which? Response (PDF: 69Kb)

16 February 2005
Called for a system of prior approval for all food businesses, not just butcher shops; called for the system of butcher shop licensing to be maintained.

Dieseltaylor – Campylobacter is the biggest cause of food poisoning and Which? is focusing on chicken because the Food Standards Agency is working with others to tackle the problem. Every one of us should be aware of the dangers of raw meat, food that has been stored too long, and the precautions that should be taken to minimise the risks.

It must be nearly ten years ago since Which? was warning us about the danger of washing the Christmas turkey. We have had useful advice about other aspects of food safety too.

If Which? looks at pets then I would hope that we are told about campylobacter and other potential dangers to us, but I don’t see any point in mentioning this in the current context. Other foods can present us with a risk of campylobacter, but I feel it is right to focus on the main problem, especially since this is what is a focus of the work of the Food Standards Agency.

What would you expect Which? to put in a press release about the current campylobacter problem?

I wonder if you have looked at the date of the last report on Food Safety?

Anyway ” I don’t see any point in mentioning this”

Well sorry I don’t do partial approaches to a problem be it disease or anything else. What Which? release to the Press is a different kettle of fish from what should be provided to the readership here. They can afford the “vertical” space to cover the subject fully AND then say “We are being less rigorous so what we supply is a simpler message for the Press”

BTW WC are you an Ordinary Member or a subscriber. The Accounts make interesting reading.

Wavechange, i have at no point, as far as I am aware, accused Which? of making “false claims”. Simply that adopting tabloid-style headlines and phrases such as “cop out” and “infected chicken on sale” tries to sensationalise the issue. Maybe they see this as the only way to motivate people. I see it differently – most of the UK citizens I believe are capable of understanding facts and reaching their own conclusions if balanced information is presented to them. This is not a simple problem that has an overnight solution – if only the supermarkets would do it. It goes right back down the food supply chain to source. The FSA document shows the complexity of the problem.

Cooking chicken properly – both at home and commercially – should be emphasised and commercial outlets checked. If people are concerned, stop eating chicken until the problem is minimised (oh and turkey, probably pork, geese, ducks, wild and reared pheasant, pigeon……).

It is a problem, the effects can be devastating in a small number of cases, it needs dealing with but meantime we can take sensible precautions.

Malcolm – I did not say that you had accused Which? of making false claims.

If the headlines that you object to are raising awareness of the campylobacter problem then I see that as very positive. I want to see real progress in dealing with this problem and not just remind people about how to handle food safely.

I think you highlight very well the diffuse nature of what we are getting wihin Which? . There is no report at all, you refer to two Which? Conversations in 2012 and this year. The April 2012 one is actually quite good:

” Which? tested whole chickens and chicken portions from nine supermarkets in March 2012. Of the 192 samples:

one in five (18%) were contaminated with campylobacter
17% were contaminated with listeria, with 4% containing levels of listeria classed as high by the Food Standards Agency (FSA)
1.5% tested positive for salmonella.

The Which? study was a snapshot, testing chicken samples from all the major retailers – Aldi, Asda, The Co-operative, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
The chicken samples were bought on two days in different locations. Bacterial contamination was found in samples from every retailer tested. ”

The article also says :

“Campylobacter contamination

Although not a directly comparable test, the Which? results indicate an improvement on 2009, when the FSA found that 65% of fresh chickens it tested were contaminated with campylobacter at the point of sale.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: ‘While the situation is improving, it is unacceptable that one in five chickens we tested were found to be contaminated with campylobacter.

‘We want to see the risk of contamination minimised at every stage of production, because for far too long consumers have been expected to clean up mistakes made earlier in the food chain.’

Food poisoning risk

There were 84,560 recorded cases of food poisoning in England and Wales in 2010. But the actual number is expected to be much higher, as many people who get sick don’t seek medical help. Those who do aren’t always screened.

In fact, the FSA estimates that campylobacter – the most common cause of food-borne illness – was alone responsible for 371,000 cases of food poisoning in 2009.

The bacteria campylobacter, listeria and salmonella are easily transferrable and, although they are killed by cooking, most illness occurs from incorrect handling and cross contamination.”

So Which? in 2012 very correctly published an article full of detail and good suggestions. We do have a problem that its % of infection figure of 18% is very significantly different from the 2009 and subsequent figures.

WHether this rogue figure is the reason Which? does not link its track record of campaigning on this issue to the current push I do not know. I would be totally upfront with myself. Being open and transparent is good in an organisation – and that applies when you drop the ball slightly.

Essentially I would like to see a continuing story/presentation on food poisoning on Which? sort of like how Wikipedia gives you the whole picture


That which? also supplies information that the news takes sound bites from is fair enough. However the detail should be available on Which? for subscribers to get the big picture also.

Dieseltaylor – To answer your question, I’m just a subscriber to Which? If I wanted to be more involved I would apply to be an Ordinary Member.

I have a long standing interest in public understanding of science and this topic interests me particularly because all my research work involved microorganisms, albeit not harmful ones.

Did Which? ever establish any risks to human health from eating BSE infected beef?

There is a fair amount of information about the BSE problem on the Which? website. As I see it, the role of Which? is to make us aware of problems and to push for the appropriate authorities to take action. I am not aware that the risk to health was ever properly quantified.

I suppose the hope is that, stunned by these dreadful results, the major retailers will deal with their supply chains and bring about remedial action down the line. As Malcolm reminds us, there are few suppliers to the major stores; this could be helpful because it will narrow down the task and it ought to be easier to deal with a small number of big companies than a large number of small firms. The picture outside the major retailers remains very unclear, however, and this must be a very serious concern.

I presume the FSA disclosed the results for each company in confidence and they have been given some time to ruminate on them. It will be interesting to see their reactions as well as the stock market’s verdict. None of them come out of this well, even the least-worst performers. There is probably now a need to set in place a series of milestones to be reached along the road to food safety in the poultry industry. These should be tough and enforceable; if a retailer fails to achieve a reasonable target then they should take the products off sale. Those with the best results shouldn’t have an easy ride either. Companies in that position presumably aren’t there by accident [the sample sizes demonstrate that] – they must be doing something right and I feel they should be sharing this with their competitors. This is no time for a ruthless price war over tiny margins; it is probably the root cause of the problem in the first place with producers and processors being forced back to the wall by the threat of losing big orders. While the argument for pursuing the suppliers, especially the importers, is powerful and such action is necessary, there is a lot to be said for keeping the public’s focus on the major retailers. They collectively control the industry, they are publicly identifiable, they have a lot to lose, and they are probably likely to be more effective in raising standards than any amount of huff-&-puff from government bodies. Between them they probably already employ more appropriate experts and scientists than the public health services. I should like to see some pooling of knowledge and resources, including from the universities and research organisations, acting in the national interest. I particularly worry about the Co-op with a disappointingly high contamination rate: it is a trusted brand with a long-standing good reputation and it means a lot to millions of households; I seriously wonder how much more battering on food quality the organisation can take. We also need to keep our eyes on Aldi and Lidl and Iceland who are commanding more and more of the budget marketplace. I think we all have to accept that the days of cheap chicken are now over.

Double-wrapping the chicken seems to be emerging as a good way of limiting the potential for campylobacter infection and will probably serve as a quick-fix, but I think we should not let that deflect us from getting the supply chain of producers, importers, processors, packers and distributors to clean up their act as a matter of grewat urgency.

John, I don’t think these figures can be said to be “dreadful” as if it has just emerged as a brand new problem. As far as I am aware this level of campylobacter has been around for a long time. I did post on the previous conversation a document that shows the problems of dealing with campylobacter and the strategy being taken to address it:
It is clearly not a simple fix.

Double-wrapping chicken is done as the chicken is prewashed and does not need to be handled by the consumer until after it has been cooked. The contents are still 70% likely to be affected with campylobacter, but it stops spreading it to other food stuffs by poor handling and cooking properly destroys it.

The immediate advice should be to handle chicken carefully so as not to spread the bacterium around, and cook it properly. Same advice as given for handling chicken for many years.

Perhaps I missed it, but I am not picking up anywhere any sense of great urgency to reach an acceptable level of contamination in a certain timeframe. I am not qualified to say what is either practical in performance or realistic in timescale. But as a consumer, I should like to suggest that we aim to set a maximum skin sample contamination rate in shop-sold chicken of 50% by 31 December 2016. That would probably mean that the various bodies dealing with this had better get their skates on. Reading the Strategy report from the FSA it appears to me that there are a lot of individual positive actions that can be taken at every point in the chain from the broiler house all the way to the checkout; not every obstacle is formidable. With the right direction, we could make a big step in a short space of time. [I remember when the Army got behind the 2001 foot & mouth outbreak – which was taking forever to control – and they made short order of the cull; it wasn’t so much the deployment of labour that did it but the command & control process that sorted out the priorities and managed the destruction of the animals].

The Strategy report identifies the enormous number of research exercises that need to be pursued in order to deal with each element of the problem [and there are scores of them]. This is worthy stuff, but we need to make sure that we don’t end up with a Pareto Principle effect whereby 80% of the research time allocated bears on only 20% of the problem. We need the top talent on the toughest tasks. Like everything British, we are very good at progressing one millimetre a day across a very broad front; a modest redirection of resources might make an exponential difference in outcomes [but let’s not spend all day examining that hypothesis to see whether or not it stands up].

Pareto Principle? – I’m glad you put that in context, John. I very much agree that we need to prioritise efforts to tackle the battle against campylobacter and hopefully there will be some quick wins to encourage future efforts.

It is important that targets are realistic. Being too ambitious means failure and not setting sights high enough could diminish effort.

I am not old enough to have lived through WW2 but have often been told tales of how seemingly insurmountable problems were overcome when there was will and effort to achieve progress. Sometimes I feel that we need more drive and determination to tackle intractable problems.

I see from today’s Guardian article that you linked to in your post below that Prof Tim Lang has some very strong language for the enormity of this food safety risk. My description of “dreadful” is mild by comparison and I think Which? is also above criticism for using attention-grabbing headlines. We have a national tendency to sleepwalk into these problems and then pussy-foot around them until the civil servants produce an exceptionally dull report that fails to wake anybody up.

Thanks Sam for your response. The high risk target of <10% by 31:12:15 still requires a massive effort fom some of the stores – and there is no guaranteeing that movement will only be in a downward direction; there could be some back slippage and external factors might interfere. To hit <10% across the board for the highest level of contamination means it's necessary to aim for 8%or less [if those 'confidence intervals' mean anything at all in the FSA table]. It is right to go for the greatest risks first and hopefully that will drag down the overall average contamination rate, but some retailers have got high-risk rates three times the target level and only thirteen months to close the gap [and don't forget it's starting on a rising trend]. My suggested 50% overall contamination rate by 31:12:16 would still require a gallop rather than a trot in most cases.

I wonder how this topical issue should be reported to avoid accusation of attention grabbing. Maybe:

Campylobacter is a continuing problem, affecting approximately 0.4% of the UK population each year. A recent investigation of supermarkets conducted by the Food Standards Agency has shown that there remains a need to solve the problem.

“I remember when the Army got behind the 2001 foot & mouth outbreak – which was taking forever to control – and they made short order of the cull; it wasn’t so much the deployment of labour that did it but the command & control process that sorted out the priorities ”

One event I clearly recall is the Army taking over a regional MAFF office and the Civil Servants complaining that they’d been hamstrung by a shortage of phone lines. The officer in charge promptly sent his sergeant out to buy a box load of PAYG mobiles…

Phil – I very much support taking drastic action – which is different from a knee-jerk reaction – when that is clearly the best way forward, as with the BSE outbreak.

Campylobacter is a bit different, unfortunately. It is an environmental bacterium, so even if we were to stop intensive farming and processing, it is very likely that some of our chickens will become infected by campylobacter and clean carcasses could still become contaminated during processing. Looking at infection levels on small well managed farms should show what is possible, and likewise it should be easy to measure contamination levels during non-intensive processing. It’s very disappointing that the public has not been told what could be achieved.

After the BSE outbreak a friend denied his sons and daughters beef for years after. I remember arguing that he should be more worried about campylobacter.

Have the FSA ever tested the packaging for contamination?

The outside of the packaging, that is. Clearly the inside will be contaminated due to contact with the raw chicken.

The great danger is with the ‘double-wrapping’ of oven-ready birds. The public will assume that the inner bag is safe to handle and will not use gloves/wash-hands/disinfect surfaces.

Given the processor’s slap-dash attitude, I find it hard to imagine that the packaging process is 100% clean.
Spillages will occur and it must be very costly to stop and clean the production line every time.

I have no problem dealing with the raw chicken – it all goes straight into the freezer, unopened.
I do this for convenience – I buy a month’s supply to avoid shopping (hate the muzak, but that’s another Conversation ……).

But dealing with the pack from shelf to freezer is very tricky.
I assume it’s likely to be contaminated and try to keep it away from other food.

Does anyone have any information on packaging contamination?

Sam – Thanks for bringing us this Conversation so promptly after the information was released. I hope that Which? will stay on the case and keep us informed about developments, because food safety is important for all of us.

I’m not happy about how the FSA has presented their data and – see my comment below. If Which? could present the information in a clearer way, that would help Bib1 and other readers. I’m going to write to the FSA about this.

I am not happy that the Food Standards Agency has presented information to the general public in an unhelpful way. I wonder how many people understand: “% skin samples >1,000 cfu/g campylobacter (95% confidence interval)”.

The bar chart in this Guardian article is commendable, since it presents the information in a simple visual format: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/27/dirty-chicken-scandal-campylobacter-eight-out-10-uk-birds-supermarkets-asda

What concerns me most is the extent of highly contaminated chickens. The Guardian article show a definite pecking order for the retailers. Our natural defences cope better with low level contamination but are overwhelmed by higher levels, which is reflected in the “infectious dose” of bacteria.


Thanks for the link. Full credit to the Guardian on a first rate mix of facts and precautions. And of course in the forefront of exposing the problem.

First rate paper. I may evn have to statr buying it!!

Dieseltaylor – I hesitated to post a link to this article – with a title of ‘Dirty chicken scandal’ 🙁

What I really wanted to illustrate was how to show how presentation of information can easily be improved. I will write to the FSA and make constructive criticism about their data presentation.

Excellent idea. I know that there has been some movement for this where medical facts are presented as many people have great trouble handling information – graphical representations increased comprehension greatly even amongst doctors who you might think were on top of the situation.

So 12% of ASDA customers who buy chilled, raw chicken are spreading campylobacter?

Should they not have to wear a bell around their necks?

PS Thanks Sam for the guidance – “pack samples” wasn’t immediately obvious to me.

Transmission of campylobacter is largely via what we eat or drink, so there is no reason for sufferers to wear a bell. The main danger of a contaminated pack is that it comes in contact with food that is going to be eaten without cooking. It’s well worth washing hands thoroughly after any supermarket shopping expedition.

My view is that Which? should have highlighted that some samples of chicken were heavily contaminated and that some supermarkets performed better than others. That’s mainly because the heavily contaminated samples are a more serious problem but it also establishes a pecking order and hopefully the supermarkets will make an effort to do better than their competitors in future.

I hadn’t realised there was so little danger from contact with campylobacter.
For instance, entering your PIN at the checkout after handling a contaminated pack – would this contaminate the keyboard?
Many other shop-based transmission routes come to mind.

Everything we touch gets contaminated with bacteria and we are frequently told that keyboards are dirtier than toilet seats. Hopefully adults don’t put fingers and other objects in their mouth.

To demonstrate cross-contamination, sniff your hands after pushing a trolley round a supermarket and you may find they smell of the previous user’s (or users’) perfume.

I doubt many of us will know anyone who has acquired an infection from a keyboard or a supermarket trolley.

I’m afraid you’d be too embarrassed to shop with me …..
I carry a pack of wipes to clean the trolley handle.
I have disposable gloves in my pocket but normally use the (free) plastic bags from the veg section as makeshift gloves.
I use the hand wipes back at the car.

As for when I get home, unpacking the shopping, you don’t even wanna know !!!

PS Now I’ll not be able to resist wiping the keypad ….. wish they’d increase the contactless limit !

No data on whether there was any difference between Organic, Freerange and other categories of chickens.

As I see it, this is just a start and a much more needs to be done to investigate the problem in more detail. I suspected that Waitrose might do better than average because they make a point of providing information about where their chickens are reared. On the other hand, that is only their premium range and we are not told that there is anything special about the processing, which might be nothing special.

Even if we find out that organic or free-range birds are better, we need all food to be safe, irrespective of price.

I’d like to know how suppliers and producers rate in this – it is they who provide chicken to the many retail outlets, and no doubt to restaurants and fast food chains. Should we not be concentrating attention on the relatively few (?) sources?

If you buy a certain brand of computer the manufacturer will probably put in whichever brand of hard disk they can buy most cheaply at the time. I would like to know whether our supermarkets and food manufacturers do the same.

Will the public have access to more detailed information than has been released or will it be considered commercially sensitive? If Which? is refused information, perhaps making a Freedom of Information request would help.

M&S put the farmer’s name on many whole chicken packs. I wonder how their flocks fare in carrying campylobacter, and how much is contaminated at the processors? Are we going to see chicken marked with “campylobacter free” by an enterprising retailer?

Given the recent poor performance of M&S, perhaps ‘campylobacter free’ means there is no charge for the bacteria. 🙂

I am very keen that retailers do compete to offer campylobacter-free chicken and very much hope that retailers will give us the name of the farm and processor on their packs.

I’m waiting for M&S to tell me where Lochmuir is. I suspect there is something fishy about their smoked salmon.

One of the interesting points I noted in the FSA Strategy report was the idea that poultry processing plants should schedule the reception of broilers from farms according to the contamination levels so that, for example, dealing with the high-risk category chickens was concentrated over a specific time period and the factory would then be cleansed before processing birds from producers where the contamination levels were likely to be lower. The purpose would be to limit the risk of cross-contamination. This seems such an elementary method that I could not believe it was not standard practice in an industry known to have a campylobacter problem for a long time. Apparently, there has been no systematic segregation of flocks from different producers according to risk categories. It has been recommended that research is undertaken into its feasibility and effectiveness. I would say “get on with it”.

Another area I would look at closely is transport. There is a large poultry rearing and processing industry around where we live in Norfolk and one of the major processors has a big plant a few miles from us. A large number of lorries are constantly employed taking crates of poultry from the farms to the factory. I believe [not sure though] that the crates and the lorries are washed out between loads but I wonder how thoroughly that is done. The same haulage contractors serve several different producers so flocks of different levels of contamination are conveyed in the same lorries. It would be interesting to know whether the vehicles and apparatus are steam-cleaned or subjected to total disinfection.

The poultry industry seems to keep itself very much to itself. There is not much information around about what happens on the inside. I have never knowingly met anyone who works in the industry despite the fact that it is a major employer in our part of the country. A lot of the workers are migrants and do not mix or communicate with the host population; they work long hours and do not participate much in the community. There is rarely anything in the local newspapers relating to these big companies. There is probably a level of enforced secrecy too. It would certainly be good to shine a powerful light into the workings of this business and hopefully, now that Asda and the others have the wind up, something might get done.

I agree that processing batches of chickens in order of risk could significantly improve the problem. I do believe that we should be consigning the more seriously contaminated batches to be cooked and used in pet food. That will of course mean much smaller profits. My view is that potential loss of income will be a far more effective driver than anything else we can do to tackle the problem.

Although I criticised Which? for pointing fingers at the retailers when it is the growers and processors that are supplying supermarkets with contaminated chicken, I have changed my view and offer an apology. The public knows little about the what happens before the birds appear on the supermarket shelves. We are paying our money to the supermarket and it is their responsibility to ensure that our food is safe.

There is so much that we don’t know. It would be interesting to find out if chickens grown on a small farm and sold via the local butcher or farm shop are likely to be less contaminated with campylobacter than supermarket produce.

You would think, living where we do, that there would be a good choice of local butchers and farm shops within a twenty minute drive and taking fresh produce from local farms. Unfortunately, two national superstores have so completely dominated the trade that the nearest proper butchers are over thirty minutes away in places with no other reason to go there. This is one of the downsides of making a move to the country! You get there . . . and it’s gone! And it is why I feel so strongly that the big retailers that have so comprehensivley changed our lives and wiped out any effective alternative supplies must be held to account over the failure to put safe food on their shelves. When you see the mockeries of butchers’ and fishmongers’ shops set up in the superstores, with their smarmy servers dolled up in stripey aprons and straw boaters, and realise that some of them are peddling dodgy food, it’s pretty sickening.

John Ward,
I agree about “… the mockeries of butchers’ and fishmongers’ shops set up in the superstores … it’s pretty sickening …”.
The smell from the fish counter is also “… pretty sickening …”.
If the French had turned out to be right about disease being carried by odour, my local supermarkets would be shut down.
We used to have a fresh, wet-fish shop in our (coastal) town it smelt ….. of fresh fish. They ceased trading when Tesco opened 100 yards away.

And yes, the fish was delicious especially the dabs.

A back-of-an-envelope calculation, using the number of 371,000 food-poisoning cases per year mentioned, gives me a result of 0.13 cases per million meals eaten (assuming two meals a day per person in UK). That means that at any given time there are six people in the country too stupid to prepare food properly. Only six? Give us a break!

Why do you say people are too stupid to prepare food properly? They may have eaten out or bought fast food, or may simply not know of the dangers.

371,000 food poisoning cases a year divided by 365 days gives me over 1000 cases per day – illness last longer than 1 day. There is an on cost to the NHS and days lost at work, as well as human misery.

Why should we accept any food that is laiden with bacteria?

“Why should we accept any food that is laiden with bacteria?”

We do not have to. We could eat very sparsely on a limited rang of foods.

However we live in a world full of bacteria, viruses and moulds all of which “potentially” could be fatal or damaging to humans, or some sets of humans like the elderly etc.

If the population as a whole where prepared to put a huge amount of money towards reducing [ not eradicating] the likelihood of food poisoning from chicken I am sure it would/could be done. However I deeply believe that there is going to be a cost implication even as we start by defining what “laden” actually means.

The Wikipedia article I referenced earlier does give details from other countries and is worth reading. However , when and if we achieve a huge reduction in campylobactor infection from chicken it will make household pets the main cause. I wonder what the next step is when preople talk of eradication etc.

The answer must be what is an acceptable level in term sof human upset and death, and the cost of a chicken. The figure of say 1000 a day suffering, and say they suffer for three days average means that on any single day one person in 15,000 is suffering – now we can play with the figures a bit more but essentially it is hardly an epidemic. On the FSA figures one person every three days will die from campylobactor poisoning and 20% of these deaths are not caused by eating chicken.

I am all in favour of minimising food poisoning but cost/benefit at some stage has to be discussed not ignored.

Just a recap of figures to save you looking ” Campylobacter is considered to be responsible for more than 280,000 cases of food poisoning each year. More than 72,000 of these were confirmed to be campylobacter poisoning (also known as campylobacteriosis) by laboratory reports.
We are continuing to analyse the full impact that campylobacter has, but previous estimates have indicated that campylobacter causes more than 100 deaths a year, and costs the UK economy about £900 million. About four in five cases of campylobacter poisoning in the UK come from contaminated poultry. Campylobacter is also found in red meat, unpasteurised milk and untreated water. Although it does not normally grow in food, it spreads easily and has a low infective dose so only a few bacteria in a piece of undercooked chicken, or bacteria transferred from raw chicken onto other ready-to-eat foods, can cause illness.”

I am with Anna. I have no intention of buying any more chicken until significant progress has been made in tackling the campylobacter problem.

The number of campylobacter in many of the supermarket samples is substantial, which is why there are so many suspected and confirmed cases. It’s normally assumed that for every known case of food poisoning there are many that don’t get reported.

The precautions necessary when handling and storing raw meat are well known, but we still have a serious problem with campylobacter. I remain to be convinced that anything like enough effort has been put into finding a solution.

Can’t remember the last time we ate chicken either and we won’t be having it again until this mess is properly cleaned up.

I would think the demand for chicken is decreasing which should make it easier to deal with the problem.

Phil Chisholm says:
29 November 2014

It would be very interesting and helpful to know how these results change when results for certified organic and non-organic chicken are separated.

Here is an article that suggests that organic chicken might not be safer: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2002/nov/21/shopping.foodanddrink

It’s worth noting that this is not a recent article, but the arguments are probably valid. We won’t know the answer until tests have been made and we are presented with the data. We could have had this information fifteen years ago.

Is organically reared chicken processed alongside non-organic?

Sorry, didn’t see wavechange’s Guardian link before asking “Is organically reared chicken processed alongside non-organic? “.

The Guardian clearly accuses the processors of using the same ‘scald tanks’ for organic, free-range and non-organic.

It’s no great leap of imagination to guess that the batches are not well segregated.

So when you buy Tesco’s Basic fresh chicken drumsticks and thighs you stand a good chance of getting top-quality organic as a fraction of the price.

Worried of Ayrshire says:
29 November 2014

Its all very well checking the chicken packaging, but what about cross contamination of the supermarkets shoppings trolleys into which we put other produce, particularly products which we do not cook?

Our natural defences cope remarkably well with small numbers of most harmful bacteria, including campylobacter. It’s important to keep raw meat and meat juices away from other food, as it always has been. By raising awareness of the problem we will probably all become a bit more careful.

And the trolleys and cages the staff use for the contaminated chicken packaging.
Are these disinfected before the ready-to-eat salads are picked up?

And the check-out moving belt.

alawnmower says:
29 November 2014

I do hope Which? (and we as voters/respondents) will look very carefully at Waitrose when next you/we come to consider ‘Supermarket of the Year’. I have written to them, so far without response, to say that this is the second time in recent years that they have been caught selling the same old rubbish as the other rest but under the Waitrose ‘quality’ banner. I shop there particularly for meat and fish because I (mistakenly it now seems) believe that they provide better quality produce. With remarkable timing the email advertising their Christmas poultry arrived in my ‘in’ box in the same batch as the ‘Supermarket bosses should hang their heads in shame’ headline! It’s difficult to see just how one avoids the production/packing process which seems to mean that even organic/free-range birds end up in the same faecal germ-ridden stew before they’re plucked but I’ll be shopping at local butchers in future and asking probing questions about where their birds come from.

Jeanna says:
29 November 2014

Wondering why anybody still wants to eat chicken? Wondering why we should be encouraged to eat food we are advised not to touch?

I eat chicken maybe two or three times a week and it’s never made me ill yet. All that’s necessary is to observe the usual straight forward hygiene precautions that apply to handling any raw meat and make sure it’s properly cooked.

Jeanna, by cooking chicken properly and observing sensible hygiene it is safe (and good) to eat – as it has been for years. In my humble opinion.

Joan Louise Anne says:
29 November 2014

I went to my cousin’s 80th Birthday celebrations in Scotland in November 2011. Her daughter had arranged a buffet lunch with items bought predominantly from M & S. Shortly after eating I felt uncomfortable in my abdominal area and when we got to our hotel about 2 hours later I had severe diarrhoea. This got worse and I felt very unwell but didn’t want to upset anyone so didn’t tell the 17 others in our party. I managed to eat some dinner without anyone suspecting that I felt ill and the next day my husband and I went for a drive for most of the day and I felt so ill I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Went to dinner again pretending I wasn’t very hungry and flew home early the following morning. During the early hours of Sun/Mon I was woken because my bowels had literally erupted and I and the bed were soaked. Went to the Dr Monday morning and left a sample for analysis. Almost 2 weeks later I had a phone call from my Dr telling me I’d had Campylobacter and it would have to be reported to DDC. By this time I was starting to feel a bit better but wished I’d known earlier what I was suffering from. No one else in our group was taken ill, only me. I was ultra-careful about hygiene; washing my hands thoroughly and and also the door handle of the hotel bathroom. I was very upset by the whole thing, in particular the ruination of my bedclothes which I destroyed. Terribly embarrassing although my husband was very sympathetic as he could see how ill I felt and how upset I was. Naturally I never told my cousin as it would have upset her too. I was also suffering from a fractured Tibia so not a good time at all..

Joan Louise Anne,
So sorry to hear how ill you were with campylobacter.

I hope what follows is good news for you – your cousin’s buffet was unlikely to be the source of the bacteria.

According to the NHS website, “… the incubation period (the time between eating contaminated food and the onset of symptoms) for food poisoning caused by campylobacter is 2-5 days …”.

As you felt ill straight after the buffet, you must have picked up the little bugs several days before.

So you’d need to think back over the 2 to 5 days BEFORE the birthday party. Did you eat or drink anything unusual in that time?

To quote from the NHS again: “… campylobacter bacteria are usually found on raw or undercooked meat (particularly poultry), unpasteurised milk and untreated water. Undercooked chicken liver and liver pâté are also common sources …”.

And there’s more good news – you may have developed an immunity to campylobacter. No promises, so don’t go mad!

Best wishes.

Spot on Bib1. If the food poisoning was confirmed as campylobacter it would not have been apparent so quickly.

Sometimes the symptoms of food poisoning do appear quickly, but this is where bacteria have been producing toxic chemicals when growing in food. With some bacteria, these toxins are not destroyed by heating which is why it is not possible to make spoiled food safe by boiling it. The classic example is botulism, which is a rarely encountered but extremely serious form of food poisoning.

How much is the Food Standards Authority costing the tax payer per annum?

They appear not to be doing their job. What successes if any have they had in the past?

Do we have comparative figures for Europe and the States?

One area which I believe has been successful is the Food Hygiene Rating scheme, providing a simple way for the public to choose premises that are well managed. Unfortunately it is not yet compulsory to display ratings in England as it is in Wales and the FSA is dependent on local authorities carrying out frequent inspections, which does not always happen.

Unless the food hygiene scheme is properly policed, regular inspections done on suspect premises, and punitive sanctions imposed it cannot be very effective, can it? I would concentrate some effort on fast chicken outlets to ensure they cook it thoroughly. Name those that don’t.

I very much share your concerns about the weaknesses in the system, but I’m glad that we have Food Hygiene Ratings and businesses competing for high scores. I make a point on making a positive comment when I visit a restaurant etc. that has recently scored a rating of 5. I don’t know how we can improve the rating system other than to push for display of the score to be mandatory in England, as it is in Wales.

It’s far too risky to assume that everyone will always cook poultry properly, whether inside the home or when we eat out. The figures show this and don’t forget that many cases of food poisoning go unrecorded.

Until there is evidence to the contrary, I will assume that we are buying chicken dressed with chicken faeces in our supermarkets. Selling chicken in two bags is not really investing in finding a solution to the problem. It is like telling children to be careful but letting them continue to play with live hand-grenades. 🙁

Are there any figures on how many poultry farms are affected?

In 2012 the British Retail Consortium, which represents the interests of retailers, accused Which? of ‘scaremongering’ about the campylobacter. I cannot find this on the BRC website but thankfully the Telegraph recorded this response: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9200506/One-in-five-chickens-contaminated-with-bacteria-Which-says.html

In their response to the publication of the recently published figures for campylobacter contamination of supermarket chicken, there is no accusation of scaremongering. Perhaps Which? deserves an apology from BRC.

It is admirable that Which? did these tests in 2012 and kept the problem in the public eye. As far as I am aware it was not a new problem, and not one that has an easy and clear solution, so perhaps as the BRC said then, as now, observe proper hygiene and cook chicken thoroughly. Apparently this is 100% effective. I would not buy chicken from fast food outlets, because I do not know how good they are at appropriate precautions, and i’d be wary in restaurants, but am quite happy to eat it at home where we control its preparation.

The recent Which? “Sign this petition” request was headed:
“Infected chickens on sale” followed by
“New Food Standards Agency testing of supermarket chicken has found that 7 in 10 of samples tested were infected with the potentially deadly Campylobacter bug.”
I think this verges on scaremongering when it makes no mention that it is not a new problem and makes no mention of handling and cooking effectiveness. Not that freezing chicken kills the bacterium.
It’s just a bit of an unbalanced approach to stir up action perhaps. Certainly action needs to be taken but as far as I can see there is an FSA strategy in placed aimed at doing just this.

The only thing I can fault Which? for is that I might be able to sign up for a second time for the campaign I supported a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully there is a mechanism to prevent double counting.

Infected chickens are undoubtedly on sale and despite well established precautions, a large number of people suffer from campylobacter-related food poisoning every year. Would it be OK if we sold new cars that were in dangerous condition providing that the public was told how to make them safe before driving them?

Why not try and stir up action if it could save people from becoming ill? I became aware that chicken was a high risk food when I was a student in the early 70s and I cannot ever remember buying a chicken dish when eating out. As I see it, time for apathy is over.

The food industry needs to invest in tackling the campylobacter problem.