/ Food & Drink

Update: supermarkets must step up to the plate

Make chicken safe logo

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.’


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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


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