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Food poisoning – how risky is supermarket chicken?

Around 23kg of poultry per person – that’s how much Brits eat on average each year. So it’s safe to say we love chicken – whether it’s roasted, grilled, fried or barbecued. But how safe actually is it to eat?

So, how safe is your supermarket chicken? We took the question to our labs and found that 18% of the chickens we tested were contaminated with campylobacter, 17% were contaminated with listeria and 1.5% tested positive for salmonella.

Although all these types of bacteria can cause food poisoning, cooking at temperatures above 70ºC (165ºF) kills them. However, most food poisoning cases are caused by cross-contamination – that is, the bacteria from raw chicken being transferred to other foods that you don’t cook, meaning the bacteria aren’t killed.

Keep bacteria at bay in the kitchen

There are simple ways you can minimise cross-contamination at home. Don’t wash raw chicken – the water can spray bacteria onto the surrounding area of your kitchen. In the fridge, keep raw chicken in sealed packaging on the bottom shelf. And when preparing chicken, use different knives and chopping boards and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

But should the onus be on us, the consumers? Or should the chicken industry do more to make the chicken we buy as uncontaminated as possible?

In the US, chicken processing plants sometimes spray their birds with chlorinated water right at the end of the production line. This can reduce bacterial contamination, but it’s currently not permitted in the EU.

Should producers freeze, acid wash or irradiate our birds?

When we spoke to the British Poultry Council, it told us that there were many other carcass treatments that could be introduced to reduce bacterial contamination. These include steam treatment, a lactic acid wash, skin-only freezing, whole carcass freezing and irradiation.

However, the industry doesn’t want to introduce treatments that could put consumers off buying their chicken. In February 2011 we surveyed 1,406 Brits online – the majority (82%) told us they wanted controls put in place throughout the food chain so that chickens aren’t infected – rather than trying to deal with the contamination right at the end.

Respondents were most averse to chlorine washes, other washes with mild acid (such as lactic acid) and irradiation treatment.

Would you buy chicken that had been treated with one of these washes? Or are you happier taking responsibility to practice good food safety at home?

Comments
Guest
erdcan says:
13 April 2012

The article fails to make clear whether only fresh or both fresh and cooked chickens were tested. The only relevant reference in the main report is to “fresh” chickens in the FSA testing in 2009.
If cooked chickens were not tested, then why not? While cooked chickens are unlikely to be contaminated at the point of sale there is a risk if the cooking has not been thorough and there is of course a small post-sale risk, eg from reheating cooled cooked chicken.

Guest

The article is referring to fresh chicken. Contamination of whole chickens and chicken meat with Campylobacter, Listeria and Salmonella is not a new problem.

Proper cooking will kill these bacteria, as stated in the introduction. If meat has been properly cooked, covered, cooled and stored in a fridge at the correct temperature for a day or two it will be safe to eat, either cold or hot. Whether cooking or re-heating food it is important to ensure that it is uniformly hot. Microwave ovens used on full power can be ineffective. They should be used on lower power to allow the heat to penetrate and food should be stirred if possible.

Guest

The problem stems from poor animal husbandry and slaughterhouse management. Chemical treatment or irradiation is undoubtedly effective in dealing with contaminated meat but that prevention is better than treatment.

I do not like the recommendation not to wash meat. Most of the bacteria will be present in the juices and on the surface of the meat, especially where chicken has diced or otherwise cut up. Washing will remove a lot of bacteria and their toxins. Transferring chicken to a pan, rinsing it thoroughly and then cooking it need not contaminate the kitchen.

Fridges should be designed with a covered watertight drawer marked ‘fresh meat’ at the bottom. This needs to be removable for easy cleaning. The old idea of having a salad chiller at the bottom of a fridge was rather irresponsible, because of the danger of contamination from raw meat juices, etc.

Guest

I think the question I’d like the answer to, is how serious is this issue, is it something new or have I been living with the risk all my life? If this is nothing new, then I’m not about to change my ways, as the way I prepare and wash chicken etc has not done me any harm to date 🙂

Guest

Here is some brief information about food poisoning, published by the FSA:
http://www.food.gov.uk/safereating/microbiology/

Food poisoning is rarely fatal but bad cases can be very unpleasant indeed. Cases are probably under-recorded. If people do not seek medical help, cases will not be reported and minor cases may just result in people feeling unwell, which could be due to food poisoning or many other reasons.

Keeping raw meat well away from cooked foods and food eaten raw should be well known by everyone. Consider that it might be crawling with bacteria and do your best to avoid cross contamination.

Guest
par ailleurs says:
13 April 2012

Usual daft scare stories. It’s come from a dead, cut-up animal so of course it contains bacteria etc. Prepare it, wash your hands and the work surface with ordinary soap and hot water and then cook it properly. Next, enjoy it and stop fretting. There’s money to be made frightening folk about terrible germs. Apart from the usual caveats about the young, infirm and elderly get on with life and stop worrying. I’d be far more worried about eating in a house that is continually blitzed with anti-bacterial cleaners!

Guest

Our research did just focus on fresh chickens and chicken portions. As Wavechange reinforces, cooking the chicken properly should kill any bacteria, but the advice is clear not to wash chicken. There is no need to and the risk is that you spread bacteria around the kitchen. If there is any debris on the meat that you want to remove, just wipe it with a kitchen towel. Just to be clear that we are not aiming to create a scare story. Far too many people become sick from campylobacter food poisoning every year and with chicken the main source, we think it is important to monitor what progress is being made reducing levels of contamination and reiterate advice on safe cooking and preparation. Not everyone is aware of the advice. A survey we carried out last year for example found that a lot of people did not know that you shouldn’t wash chicken.

Guest

Thanks Sue, but what about the risk of heat-stable toxins produced by whatever bacteria are present? These will be mainly on the surface of uncooked chicken and in juices. A kitchen towel will not achieve much apart from to remove some of the juices.

Another factor that makes this more than a scare story is the fact that an increasing number of people take proton pump inhibitors (Lansoprazole etc) and other drugs that decrease the secretion of acid into the stomach. Stomach acid is one of the body’s defences against harmful bacteria in food and drink.

I agree with par alleurs that antibacterial products are unnecessary and best avoided, but food poisoning cannot be classified as a health scare.

I will carry on washing my chicken and I have never knowingly had food poisoning in my own home, despite being on regular medication to decrease stomach acid.