/ Food & Drink

Update: supermarkets must step up to the plate

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Results are in and it would appear that, while some progress has been made, you are still at risk from Campylobacter food poisoning from supermarket chicken.

It’s coming up to Christmas and the not-so-subtle hints have been coming in thick and fast that I need some practice before the big day. I had it all planned out. Rosemary, lemon, one pot and one chicken – this Sunday, Jamie Oliver was going to guide me through a simple roast with a zesty twist.

So you can understand my disappointment when the latest Food Standards Agency (FSA) results on Campylobacter contamination came in today

Why does this matter?

Three in four chickens sold in supermarkets are still contaminated with the potentially lethal superbug.

Morrisons has topped the list with the highest levels of contamination, followed closely by consistently poor performer Asda.

Along with 34,000 supporters, Which? has called on all major UK supermarkets to publish CEO-endorsed farm-to-fork action plans to tackle Campylobacter. And since then, supermarkets have been given time to trial interventions and change processes to bring levels down.

But it hasn’t been good enough.

Cleaning up their acts

These results were the first test of the industry’s promises to improve levels but only two retailers have met the FSA’s target to reduce the highest levels of contamination to 7%.

More shockingly, the results of three retailers have worsened since the first survey.

But are we really surprised? Last month, Public Health England reported that the number of people infected by Campylobacter in England and Wales is rising.

So if supermarkets and suppliers have really been doing all they can, why is there not consistent improvement across the board?

This isn’t about which supermarket can top the leaderboard. This is about cleaning up their shelves and keeping their customers safe.

What’s next?

The FSA’s results prove that it is possible to meet their target and make chicken safer.

Some retailers have significantly reduced levels of Campylobacter, so the pressure is on the others to explain why they have missed these jointly agreed targets.

Would you expect more from your supermarket?

If this news hasn’t completely put you off chicken, here’s Jamie’s roast dinner recipe, and take a look at our tips on how to cook chicken safely.

But it might be worth checking out the FSA’s results before heading to the shops…!

Update: 14 March 2017

New figures from the Food Standard Agency (FSA) show a 17% decline in the number of lab reports of Campylobacter in supermarket chickens in 2016.

As part of an ongoing survey into the food-poisoning bug, a total of 1,492 fresh, shop-bought whole chickens were tested across supermarkets and other outlets, such as local butchers, between August and December 2016.

Overall, 7% of chickens tested positive within the highest band of contamination, down from 12% for the same period in 2015 and 20% in 2014.

Of the nine major retailers included in the survey, Sainsbury’s ranked the supermarket least likely to have contaminated chickens at the highest level, with 2.6% of its chicken samples testing positive for Campylobacter.

Alex Neill, our managing director of home 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 over half of chickens are contaminated and that this can vary greatly depending on where consumers shop.’

Comments
Member

I have mentioned in another Conversation that a friend was affected by Guillain-Barré syndrome – a rare complication that can happen after a campylobacter infection. It paralyses and can kill because the sufferer many not be able to breathe without intervention. She is still does not have full use of her hands and requires assistance with walking. This was as a result of eating in a restaurant about two years ago.

It is not just a case of cooking food properly and being careful about hygiene in the home.

Member

I think anyone concerned about chicken should avoid eating it in restaurants and takeaways. I cannot foresee a time in the near future when it will be totally abolished, by its very nature, unless perhaps we adopt e.g. frozen, irradiated or chemically treated chicken only.

Member

It’s not just a case of avoiding chicken, Malcolm. Cross contamination of cooked foods and foods that are eaten raw (e.g. salads) with juice from raw chicken presents a risk. Elderly people can be less careful and we have no control of how food is treated when we eat out.

Campylobacter is the main cause of food poisoning. According to the Food Standards Agency: “Campylobacter is considered to be responsible for more than 280,000 cases of food poisoning each year. There are more than 72,000 laboratory confirmed cases of campylobacter poisoning (also known as campylobacteriosis) and a high proportion of these will be due to food.” I do hope that the efforts in the past couple of years will mean a reduction in these figures. Bear in mind there will be many mild cases of food poisoning that go unreported.

Chemical treatment is usually chlorine bleach or peroxyacetic acid. Chemical treatment is effective and used in the US but is not allowed in the EU at present. Chicken can legally be irradiated. I would prefer to see more pressure on the industry to continue to make improvements rather than go down the road of using chemicals or irradiation.

Member

I do understand the cross contamination issue and I, too, would not like to only be presented with artificially-treated chicken. I was simply pointing out what I think are the problems involved in getting campylobacter-free chicken.

I do not know whether pressure is lacking on the major producers or a lack of proven effective “interventions” in what is acknowledged as a difficult problem to combat. I mentioned “trials” because that is what a range of interventions were being put through to see which worked best. Until we have an effective armoury we will be unable to tackle the problem totally – my reading of the situation. If any major producers / retailers are avoiding necessary precautions maybe someone will tell us.

Member

Campylobacter is far more likely to cause a problem if present in large numbers. I have explained the concept of ‘infective dose’ in other Conversations. Eliminating campylobacter is unlikely but achieving a substantial reduction should be sufficient to greatly reduce the risk of food poisoning. It’s best to focus on the number of highly contaminated samples rather than the larger number where lower level contamination is found.

My understanding is that campylobacter is mainly present on the surface of the meat, as a result of faecal contamination. I believe that better standards in growing and processing are still needed.

We have been told that neck skin is now removed during processing, which is an improvement but it means that test results are not directly comparable with the earlier tests.

Member

The FSA said last year that they had changed their test method, and so current results would not be directly comparable with previous ones. For the Jan-Mar ’16 results the FSA said:
“One of the reasons the survey results are lower this quarter is because of the decision taken by a number of retailers and their suppliers to remove neck skin from the bird before it goes on sale. The neck skin is the most contaminated part of the chicken. However, it is also the part of the bird that we have been testing in our survey and this means that comparisons with previous results are not as reliable as we would like.”

Member

That’s it, Malcolm. It makes sense to remove material that is likely to be heavily contaminated and no-one is going to eat.

Member

“It’s coming up to Christmas”? Just how long have I been asleep?

Member

I was wondering the same 🙂

Member

This is the problem with adding an update to an existing Conversation without reviewing or editing the preamble. I suppose there is never a time [except on 25 December itself] when it isn’t “coming up to Christmas” but we’ve had two Christmases since that was written.

The original Conversation started on or before 19 November 2015 but has been redated to 14 March 2017. Bit naughty perhaps.

Member

The FSA has just published (18th Oct) the latest results for campylobacter, showing yet another general reduction. “The full year’s results show that on average, across the entire market, 6.5% of chickens tested positive for the highest level of contamination, (over 1,000 colony forming units per gram – cfu/g). This is down from 19.7% in 2014/15 when the survey began.

https://www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2017/16629/final-results-third-annual-retail-survey

Member

I have no confidence in the poultry industry. The 2 Sisters Food Group was reported by a whistleblower several years ago and recently it was in the news again. This article and video show some serious problems: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/03/2-sisters-west-bromwich-chicken-plant-food-group

Why are major retailers still using this company?

Member

“M&S, Aldi and Lidl suspend buying from chicken plant“. Production has ceased, so no doubt other supermarkets will source elsewhere.
The FSA are investigating https://www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2017/16580/update-on-fsa-investigation-into-2-sisters-food-group. It was reported that “The Food Standards Agency – which had conducted nine audits at the site, five of which were unannounced, in the months of July and August – also announced its own investigation. It has not found any breaches and has urged “anyone with information for this investigation” to make contact.“. At the time the Guardian and ITV had not responded to the FSA’s request to hand over material to assist their investigation. I hope they now have.

Concerned people, including employees, can contact their local authority with any concerns. They work with the FSA. Do people do this?

An interesting thing about campylobacter was that while the major retailers have substantially reduced it, independent shops are around 3 times as contaminated. Worrying.

Member

From memory, the 2 Sisters Food Group has a dozen sites in the UK but I could not establish how many are processing plants. It might be that standards are better in the other plants but we have no way of knowing. We don’t even know if the suspension remains in force or has been lifted.

I don’t think we can assume that employees and anyone else with knowledge of poor practices can be relied on to report them. It’s well documented that people in semi-skilled jobs are often concerned that they could lose their jobs or be victimised if they complain. It would take even more courage to be a whistleblower.

If I ran a supermarket I would be tempted to have people apply for jobs in the processing industry to get a true insight into standards. I’m not sure about the legality of doing this.

Member

The FSAs job is to conduct inspections. Perhaps they are not sufficiently well funded (by us?). Or perhaps this incident is not what it seems. We won’t know until the investigation is concluded.

Whistleblowers can be a problem as they may be doing so out of spite, but I would encourage their use. They should be able to report problems in confidence, so no victimisation. Should their report be credible, or supported by others, then that should be sufficient to prompt investigatory action.

Member

The government’s intention is to move towards self-regulation. I had a long discussion with a couple of environmental health officers earlier in the year and one of them suggested I read up on ‘Regulating our Future’: https://www.food.gov.uk/enforcement/regulation/regulating-our-future They were both very concerned about the danger of lower standards in practice.

You are right that whistleblowers can act out of spite and it would be easy to contrive to show someone changing the use by dates on packs. Placing someone inside the company to find out what is happening could help establish the truth. I have not heard of the FSA working in this way.

Member

No problems – the Market will see that things run properly.
Why would suppliers want to make us ill by shifting dodgy food?

Member

There have been cases of changing ‘use by’ dates in the past. I remember an investigation that discovered that small shops including those in garages were putting the contents of sandwiches in fresh bread rather than disposing of them. At present, we don’t know if the Guardian report is factually correct or fabricated, but there is certainly a financial incentive to change dates on packaging rather than dispose of food.

Member
bishbut says:
24 October 2017

The government does not have money to pay for necessary things it sends it all to overseas countries which do not really need it just to raise it’s standing in a worded which does not car an iota about Britain they only care about themselves Care for nobody but yourself that’s the way things have gone everwhere

Member

Not far wrong there Bishbut . our toothless lion is only good for biting its OWN citizens .

Member

Many years ago I had holiday jobs with a neighbour who ran a small wholesale food business. He had an egg-packers licence and used to collect them from farms, check them and pack them in trays in large cartons. The cartons were dated. If they ran out of date he simply reboxed them with a new date.

However, i agree in general JKK. Retailers with a reputation to uphold would be expected to deal with equally reputable suppliers, and perform unannounced inspections to ensure they were performing correctly. We might blame the companies, but I wonder what level of staff might decide to cover up their deficiencies by fiddling the goods in some way?