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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?



It would be very interesting to know if there is a difference in contamination of chickens and products from different suppliers. It there is a significant difference, that would suggest that there is scope for improvement.

I was well aware that raw poultry can be contaminated by food poisoning bacteria, but had not realised the extent of the problem until I read your article.

Thanks. I was not thinking about supermarkets but their suppliers. I assume that supermarkets buy from various sources according to price, unless a farm is specified.

I look forward to hearing more when the FSA reports its findings.

Stephen Bateman says:
19 April 2012

There’s definitely a need for more traceability and transparency on food products and we can learn a clever trick from our savvy green neighbours in Germany, where consumers are using their smartphones and bar scanning apps to trace safe, healthy, unhealthy and dangerous products.

I recently heard that 6 million Germans downloaded nifty bar code scanner application called barcoo to their smartphone. That was after I saw the same thing being used in France: consumers use the camera on their smartphone to focus on a bar code so they can get up-to-date nutritional information directly onto their mobile phone whilst they are shopping at the supermarket. My friends in Paris had it and it was great.

I’ve downloaded the barcoo app to my android phone and it works but not on all products. There’s a traffic light system that tells you which products are safest and healthiest and the most sustainable products. It goes form green then amber which is a mixed bag and red which is the worst.

Has anyone else tried the barcoo app?

Are you seriously suggesting that everyone who wants to be sure about the quality of food should carry around a smartphone when they go shopping?

Maybe a better approach would be to get our food producers to (literally) clean up their act.

Methinks this is a step too far into a brave new world,.

Clarabella says:
29 April 2012

I don’t like the way the article is negative towards organic chicken. This method is traditional. All animals forage for food it is natural. I do not want my chicken to be treated with anything other than steam. You should not wash chicken as it does transfer bacteria around the kitchen without you even knowing it (as you can’t see it). The less you handle chicken the better as the oven will kill off any bacteria as long as you follow correct cooking guidelines. We have been eating chicken for years enough of this scare mongering.

Robint says:
24 May 2012

Wow nobody owned up to being made sick then?

All armchair hypothesis?

Common sense must prevail. All poultry contains bacteria – deal with it