/ 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.’

Comments

Most supermarkets are in the relatively early stages of their action plans, with different actions being tried to see what is effective in what is a complex problem. The latest results are on relatively small samples and in a warm time of the year. I suggest we need a full year’s experience – monitored quarterly and taking as large a sample size as possible which probably means incorporating independent test results carried out for the retailers.

The target for the most heavily contaminated samples (>1000 cfu.g) was 10% by 2015. the intro says this is 7%. Was the target amended?

Meanwhile the advice should still remain to cook poultry properly (and be wary of eating cooked poultry from doubtful take-aways and other hot food suppliers).

I had the same problem, Malcolm. The 7% figure is explained in this document: http://food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/campylobacter-retail-survey-jul-sept-2015.pdf In my view, the only acceptable figure is 0%, bearing in mind that we are referring to heavy contamination.

To compare the performance of the supermarkets, see Figure 2 in the above link.

Neena is right to be concerned. Every one of our supermarkets is still selling chicken that could make us ill. Hopefully the increasing number of campylobacter infections is a result of better reporting. Not all cases of food poisoning are reported.

It is good to see that the latest test cover Aldi and Lidl but there is so much we still don’t know about campylobacter. All the tests are carried out on chicken carcasses, whereas chicken pieces represent the majority of what we buy. What about turkey, the traditional Christmas bird? And what about eating out?

Many assume that they are safe if they follow guidelines about storing chicken correctly, not washing it, and making sure that it is properly cooked, but a drop of juice from uncooked chicken onto salad or food that has already been cooked could cause food poisoning.

It’s well over a year since I have eaten any chicken and I have no intention of buying it in the foreseeable future.

As it is unlikely that campylobacter will ever be eliminated then presumably there are some who will never eat poultry of any kind in the future. That is a choice of course. I will look on with interest at the current attempts to improve its prevalence and hope no one resurrects an alarmist campaign when it does seem that improvements are being made.

I hope whistleblowers and others who see bad practice will report it to the FSA. I also hope the FSA will look at fresh chicken in cooked food outlets. A role I suppose that council food inspectors should have taken on; I wonder if they are active in this area?

I would also hope the retailers will publish their own test results and sample sizes when done by independent laboratories on their behalf. Some take much larger sample sizes than FSA.

Finally I would like FSA to take samples from the chicken processors. This seems to be an area that has not been addressed in their sampling, but where cross-contamination can occur.

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It’s not as simple as you imply. The major culprits are not over-prescribing medics, but vets. Animals are routinely given antibiotics, even in this country, and it’s almost impossible to buy honey that isn’t liberally dosed with them.

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Numerous academic studies have confirmed the point I was making. To quote from just one:
“The resistance problem can be seen simplistically as an equation with two main components: the antibiotic or antimicrobial drug, which inhibits susceptible organisms and selects the resistant ones; and the genetic resistance determinant in microorganisms selected by the antimicrobial drug44,45. Drug resistance emerges only when the two components come together in an environment or host, which can lead to a clinical problem. Selected resistance genes and their hosts spread and propagate under continued antimicrobial selection to amplify and extend the problem to other hosts and other geographic locations. There are more than 15 classes of antibiotics1 whose targets are involved in essential physiological or metabolic functions of the bacterial cell. None has escaped a resistance mechanism. Millions of kilograms of antimicrobials are used each year in the prophylaxis and treatment of people, animals and agriculture globally, driving the resistance problem by killing susceptible strains and selecting those that are resistant.”

And antibiotics are still used routinely to promote growth in animals.

Ian – You are absolutely right, and even school kids learn of antibiotic resistance these days. I have no idea of what progress has been made to phase out use of antibiotics to promote growth of livestock.

What I don’t know about is the relevance of antibiotic use and resistance in the context of campylobacter. The bacteria are carried in the bowels of the animals, generally without any sign of illness, and the campylobacter-laden faeces are the vehicle that spreads the bacteria between the animals and contaminates carcases during processing.

WoW
How did you manage to HiLight that section?

PRAISE be unto thee, leader on the shining path** of truth.

** Not to be confuzed with

Sendero Luminoso

Hi Duncan – This is the latest in a series of discussions about the problem of campylobacter in chicken. Campylobacter is believed to be responsible for approximately 280,000 cases and 100 fatalities annually in the UK. Some cases are mild and others severe, but it’s generally self-limiting and does not need antibiotic treatment. A rare complication of campylobacter food poisoning is Guillain-Barré syndrome – an opportunist viral infection that can affect a person while in a weakened state. A severe case can cause extensive paralysis to the extent that the patient may be unable to breathe for themselves. A friend is recovering from GB following a campylobacter infection and was recently discharged after months in hospital.

Campylobacter is present in the environment and poultry can carry large numbers of bacteria in their intestines without signs of illness. Our own intestines are full of harmful bugs too, which is why we learn as children to wash our hands before handling food.

All uncooked meat poses some risk but the harmful bacteria can be killed by proper cooking, and campylobacter is no exception. Care needs to be taken to avoid cross contamination from uncooked meat to food that has been cooked or does not require cooking. All very standard. The problem with chicken is that many of the carcasses are so heavily contaminated that the Food Standards Agency issued the advice not to wash chicken in order to decrease the risk of cross contamination.

Campylobacter is not a new problem. I remember being wary of barbecues when I was a student in the early 70s. It’s very easy to undercook meat and most of the warnings were about chicken.

I believe that it is the intensive rearing and processing of chicken that is the reason for the number of heavily contaminated birds on sale in our supermarkets. Search for ‘Dirty chicken scandal’ and you will find several articles published by the Guardian following an undercover investigation in the processing plants used to supply chicken to the supermarkets. Suffice to say that faeces get everywhere and can contaminate carcasses that were previously free of campylobacter. The supermarkets have moved to bagging or double-bagging whole chicken so that the bird can be put in the oven. Proper cooking will kill the bacteria and destroy the toxins they produce, so the chicken is safe to eat.

I wonder what thought has been given to chicken pieces which could be heavily contaminated with campylobacter. Juices could drip onto salad or cooked food in the fridge, or cross contamination could occur when chopping the raw meat. With care, we can probably avoid exposing ourselves to much risk, but can we be sure about others being careful when we eat out. Even though adults and children will have been taught to cook food and understand basic hygiene, food poisoning remains a common problem and campylobacter is the most frequent cause. The problem has got worse, probably due to intensive production methods.

I appreciate the risks and know how to handle chicken safely, having had a lot to do with bacteria during my working life. I’m a bit fussy about where I eat out but it’s always going to be a gamble. The reason I don’t eat chicken is because I have been increasingly unhappy about the lack of effort by the industry to tackle the campylobacter in recent years, and also the way the birds are treated during their short lives.

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Our bodies can cope well with small amounts of many harmful bacteria, though there are exceptions. Large amounts and poor hygiene are a threat, as shown by the fatalities seen during wars.

Eating food contaminated by campylobacter is a problem. I am not aware that touching raw chicken or a leaking package in a supermarket is a hazard, but if the chicken juices contaminate the bread or salad in your shopping bag, you could become sick.

”Even though … children will have been taught to cook food and understand basic hygiene,… ”
What with endless testing, OFSTED visits, PREVENT Lectures from Government front organizations, etc, as the great Al Read used to say :
”You’ll be lucky. I say………. You’ll be lucky.”

Why is all the onus put on the supermarkets?

Ok, it is their choice where they source their chicken, but surely the chicken farms need sorting out first. As long as chickens are reared in overcrowded barns, living in their own faeces, what is going to change?

If supermarkets want to be seen to do something positive, start by sourcing from local small farmers instead of battery farms.

I agree; which is exactly why the onus is on the purchasers (the supermarkets). Life itself is an ongoing battle between the various forms of microbiological terrorists that infest our existence and we’re allowing them into our own bodies all day, every day. That’s why some strains of ‘flu and various varieties of the common cold and the ubiquitous “Flu-like” illnesses spread so easily.

It’s the level of ignorance by some retailers that is worrying. Tesco, for instance, happily provides small plastic bags free to wrap your purchased chicken in but M & S won’t hear of it (at least, not until you confront them on the issue). When I did, a month ago, I also pointed out to the cashier that he ought to approach his union and point them to the findings. Cashiers, after all, are the most at risk from contaminated packaging.

There are more than 30 species of campylobacter and they vary in their effects on humans. The most common illness in humans caused by it is Campylobacteriosis and it’s not a nice illness, despite it being self-limiting, in the main. Stomach cramps, as many as 10 watery, frequently bloody, bowel movements per day, headaches and fever form the mainstay of this delightful incursion, and – of course – it’s much more dangerous in the very young (where it was once thought to be Dysentery) and the very old and those with compromised immune systems.

Yes – cooking it thoroughly destroys C jejuni and the small number of other things all chickens carry quite effectively, but the very process of unpacking it at home is fraught when we know even the best supermarkets had almost 2% of contaminated packaging. And making the packaging clean is possible at relatively low cost. And that, I believe, is certainly the responsibility of the shops.

Alfa asks why the onus is put on supermarkets to tackle the problem. I wondered the same thing when I first heard of plans to name and shame the supermarkets whose chicken was found to have the highest contamination with campylobacter. After all, the problem is a result of the way the bird was reared or the carcass was processed.

I presume the argument is that when you purchase goods, the responsibility lies with the retailer. Consider processed foods that contain ingredients from many sources, perhaps the responsibility should lie with the retailer. On the other hand, it is the manufacturer of products that generally handles the recall of goods that may be affected by a safety issue. Only they will know which batch of ready-meal may contain glass or which washing machine might be a fire risk.

The poultry industry is testing a series of ‘interventions’ to tackle the problem of campylobacter contamination. By combining different interventions, the overall effect is greater.

The complexity and cost varies. For example, making sure that the chickens always have access to clean drinking water helps and inexpensive. Treating the chicken carcasses briefly a blast of nitrogen well below freezing point (rapid surface chilling) or steam are interventions that require installation of expensive equipment.

The two species of campylobacter that commonly cause infection in humans are quite fragile compared with many bacteria. Whereas many bacteria survive freezing well, campylobacter does not. Simply selling frozen rather than chilled chicken might largely overcome the problem with campylobacter. More research is needed to establish how effective freezing would be in combatting campylobacter.

The responsibility must lie with the retailer in my view for whatever you purchase. They source and select the product and make profit from it. This is why the Consumer Rights Act puts the onus on the retailer when a consumer has a problem.

As far as chicken goes we would not have low cost meat unless we adopted intensive methods. We have a choice as consumers as to whether we buy it or not. From memory less intensively farmed chicken was just as contaminated with campylobacter as battery farmed – the latter can, in principle, be more closely controlled against a bacterium that is all around, including in surface water from which outdoor birds will drink.

Many major retailers are making great efforts to control campylobacter both at the farm, during processing and in store. Whatever may have been the situation in the past, it is the present that is relevant.

If someone has a solution to minimising campylobacter that is not being tried then I’m sure this conversation, and the FSA, would be glad to hear it. The FSA reports a reduction of 30% in overall contamination, and 10% in the high level that is most likely to cause illness. That seems promising.

It isn’t always the retailer that takes responsibility. I have a letter from VW indicating that their are emissions problems with my car. It’s the same with Toyota airbags. I recall Sony and Nokia recalling batteries for laptops and phones, and the Food Standards Agency maintains a list of manufacturers’ recalls relating to foods.

If I was sick after eating food from the local supermarket, I presume that would make a claim against the supermarket rather than the manufacturer, in the case of processed food. Obviously it might be my own fault for not storing or cooking the food correctly. No doubt the ‘campylobacter lawyers’ that specialise in this area will know.

I looked back at the introduction and it makes no mention of the % improvement that the FSA have found in the first quarter, just a rather vague “while some progress has been made,”.

I wonder why, in these sorts of conversations, Which? is reticent about publishing factual information. Does it not suit it’s campaign? Do they think we are we not capable of drawing our own conclusions? Am I being too hard on them? (It’s the right hand button 🙂 )

Marks and Spencer has published figures for campylobacter tests carried out over a full year. They show the well known seasonal influence: http://corporate.marksandspencer.com/documents/reports-results-and-publications/campylobacter-case-study-november-2015.pdf

Marks and Spencer’s published report for the year Nov ’13 to Oct ’14 shows that the highest level of campylobacter was present in 15% of samples. For the year Nov ’14 to Oct ’15 it was 10.8% – a reduction of 28% and close to the FSA’s initial target. The disappointing thing is the results for the summer quarter July-Sept ’15 where the figure was nearer 19%. FSA have in the past pointed to seasonality as a significant factor. Waitrose and the Co-op do not show this blip this year.

M&S take 3 times the number of samples as the FSA and have them independently tested. I expect other supermarkets do the same. It would be useful if their results were included (or added) to those of the FSA’s. The bigger the sample the more representative the results will be.
Clearly the methods being adopted by M&S, and I assume other major retailers through their processors, are showing improvements. A quarter is a short timescale; a hot season seems to have an effect. So for Which? to use the phrases “More shockingly, the results of three retailers have worsened since the first survey” and “Three in four chickens sold in supermarkets are still contaminated with the potentially lethal superbug.” seem more appropriate to a tabloid than to what should be a balanced approach from Which?

“”So if supermarkets and suppliers have really been doing all they can, why is there not consistent improvement across the board?” is best posed as a question rather than a criticism. This is no doubt what the FSA and the retailers are trying to answer. So give credit where it is due. We need to see a years results before we can begin to evaluate progress and heap criticism.

Meanwhile, cook chicken (and duck, turkey etc) well, store it properly, buy it from reputable outlets, buy frozen if you like, or choose not to eat it.

The purpose of headlines is to raise awareness and provided that information is not factually incorrect or biased, I am not going to be upset by the presentation used in Which? press releases and Conversation topics. I would take issue with campylobacter being described as a ‘superbug’. That normally describes a harmful organism that defies treatment with most common antibiotics. From what I have read, campylobacter infections in humans and self-limiting and not treated with antibiotics.

While I support M&S doing additional testing and informing the public of the results (if you know where to look), I’m less convinced about their progress than you are. However, they certainly don’t deserve this report: telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/12005559/80-of-chickens-from-Marks-and-Spencer-and-Sainsburys-carry-deadly-superbug.html

My own interpretation is that some chicken is still heavily contaminated and continues to pose a risk to our health, whichever supermarket it comes from. I would like to see the companies working together for the common good. The fact that most of the processing is done by a small number of processing companies indirectly helps with progress.

If chickens and other animal species possess innate immunity to certain types of bacterium that humans don’t, then there is always going to be a risk of contamination and infection as long as we continue to ingest them.

The recent FSA report exposes the supermarkets to a greater or lesser degree for selling them which, in turn, ought to induce the supermarkets to put pressure on the farmers who produce them, the abbatoirs that kill them and the processors that prepare them for human consumption.
It’s unacceptable to expect consumers to (a) buy contaminated food and (b) suffer the consequences of the effects of a potentially fatal toxic illness if their food fails to reach a certain temperature when cooked, also to advise them not to wash it to prevent cross contamination.

Frozen chickens on the other hand will reduce contamination by approximately 90%, but because some people have a preference for ‘fresh’ meat purely because of its texture and taste, in full knowledge of the potential consequences, then that is their prerogative, but if these people continue to buy them, the supermarkets will not put the required pressure on the suppliers to clean up their act and produce food fit for consumption.

A frozen chicken for a short period is but a small price to pay to initiate the necessary action in order to produce food that is safe to eat.

I would have great respect if any supermarket decided to move from selling chilled to frozen chicken. Frozen chicken tends to be significantly cheaper, so it’s possible that fast food outlets are already using it.

” Frozen chicken tends to be significantly cheaper … ”
1)… ‘coz it’s easier to handled in a more robust way than fresh, and it’s less convenient to the purchaser
2)… And when ALL chickens are frozen, the price will go up.

(1) The salient point being, short term consumer influence to establish change.
(2) Change = cleaner fresh meat fit for human consumption.
(3) Cleaner fresh meat = fewer cases of noxious campylobacter infection.
(4) The new Consumer Rights Act states all goods should be safe and fit for purpose, so is it not worth paying a little more, albeit on a temporary basis, to ensure our food is not contaminated with potentially fatal micro-organisms and is fit for human consumption?

The choice is ours, buy cheaper frozen chicken now to force producers to clean up their act or accept the status quo with all of its potential lethal consequences.

” ..but because some people have a preference for ‘fresh’ meat *** purely *** because of its texture and taste, in full knowledge of the potential consequences, then that is their prerogative, but if ***these people *** continue to buy them, …”
Wow !

Alarmist headlines and campaigns from anyone do, to my mind, constitute bias if they are not wholly true. Superbug it isn’t. Potentially fatal it is, but generally in reality in the more heavily contaminated chickens – >1000 cfu/g – which do not constitute three out of four chickens sold. And generally only if they are not properly cooked.

Off course give sensible warnings and constructive advice. Most of the “public” are capable of making their own minds up, given the necessary information, and do not need to be lead down a particular path.

As far as I know campylobacter has been with us for ever, so to now point the finger at retailers for selling it, as if it is a new problem they are foisting on us, is a bit difficult to understand. We can choose not to eat chicken if we are concerned about it. Much food needs careful cooking if we are not to be made ill. Reheating food is probably more dangerous than eating chicken. I am optimistic that people are trying to improve our standards of food integrity and support their efforts. But if anyone can propose better solutions then they should do so.

Which?, have you asked the major retailers to comment on the FSA results, on their own results, and how they see progress (or otherwise) in the action plans they have published?

I would not wish to re-hash the arguments that were deployed in the previous versions of this thread but will add something new. However bear in mind that I belong to the school of thought that there is no such thing as 100% prevention and that cost is a factor. Bearing in mind of course that ultimately proper cooking destroys diseases.

” Most conventionally reared flocks are Campylobacter-negative for the first three weeks of life.
Thereafter, the prevalence of colonized flocks increases. Infection once acquired is sustained in most
broiler flocks until slaughter; however, in flocks of birds older than 8-9 weeks (i.e., organic, free-range
or laying hens) the proportion of positive birds in a flock may decline, possibly as a result of acquired
immunity. As the age of slaughter can vary substantially between countries and flock types this could
contribute to variations in flock prevalence throughout the EU.

There are several explanations for the increased risk of colonization with age, including increased risk
of exposure to infection and changing susceptibility of the birds. It is reasonable to assume that the
chance of contamination entering a broiler house increases over time, i.e. with increasing age of the
birds. This reflects the increasing number of challenges to the biosecurity barrier by farm staff and the
increasing volumes of water, feed and air required as birds became bigger”

What might also be interesting is whether all chicken breeds are equally affected and that the specially bred broiler chickens are in fact more susceptible given the pressured feeding up and culling. Just a thought.

We also have the interesting statistics that the prevalence of the disease is very low in Finland and Estonia and generally low in Northern EU. Is it solely cold weather and seasons?

Beryl’s idea is good regarding forcing on the issue of freezing chickens but I do wonder if this would simply reinforce the “ethics/practices” of industrial farming and actively discourage small farmers, small-holders from partaking in the food supply chain.

What is good for the mass market may unwittingly [ or possibly wittingly] destroy the artisan.

It is unlikely that campylobacter could be eliminated unless individual birds were vaccinated. It’s not necessary to eliminate bacteria because in most cases our bodies can cope with them as long as the numbers are not too high.

At least one of the FSA reports mentions campylobacter in battery, free-range and organic chicken, albeit with a small sample size for organic. Unfortunately the battery ones were less contaminated. There is at least one other study that has concluded the same.

In one of the other Convos I mentioned an encouraging study on the effect of freezing on campylobacter survival in liver. From memory, it was done on behalf of the FSA. This needs to be repeated for whole chicken and chicken pieces under the conditions that would be used on a production line to establish the efficacy of freezing as a practical intervention to control campylobacter.

I have come across reports in the past on the effectiveness of freezing – and it is, both at reducing the prevalence of campylobacter and its degree.

FSA published some figures a few years ago on prevalence that are probably best used as indicative rather than absolute. Frozen 13.6%, chilled 47%, but frozen was also less contaminated. Free range 51%, organic 60%, housed 42% (but the former samples were quite small). Seasonal – maximum August 68%, minimum May 29%.

The effect of freezing on survival of bacteria can depend a lot on the nature of the organism and rates of freezing and thawing, so it’s important to run tests done under similar conditions to those used in processing.

I presume the rapid surface chilling technique developed for Bernard Matthews, and now being more widely used, involves transient freezing that is sufficient to decrease the number of viable bacteria without significantly affecting the texture and all-important appearance of the chicken: linde.co.uk/en/news_and_media/press_releases/news_20130910.html

Just one minor point, DT: when you say “ultimately proper cooking destroys diseases” it’s worth bearing in mind that cooking does not destroy many toxins and Prions, for instance, are remarkably resilient, although I accept the jury remains out on their role in transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

It is a common and dangerous misunderstanding that cooking makes food safe. Some toxins produced by bacteria are heat-stable. For example, Clostridium botulinum produces a toxin that is fatal in tiny quantities. Thankfully, campylobacter toxins are destroyed by heat.

The biggest problem is almost certainly that comics like the DFM are allowed to influence public policy and awareness. Reporters and editors whose knowledge of statistics and percentages is below that of the average Primary school child shouldn’t be let near a tabloid.

But the M&S report fails to acknowledge how the packaging contamination issue can be resolved. That’s possibly the easiest aspect of the process.

The obvious solution is double-bagging with sufficient absorbent material to contain juices that could otherwise leak out of the package. It may be necessary to wash the encapsulated chickens before packing in boxes. The most recent figures suggest that some suppliers are making progress in this area.

Double bagging or simply sluicing existing sealed bags with sterilising agents .

In the US, chlorine and peroxyacetic acid (peracetic acid) are used to help control campylobacter when processing chickens. Fine for decontaminating bags but I hope the EU does not succumb to pressure to introduce chemical cleaning of chicken, helped along by TTIP: beuc.eu/blog/what-is-wrong-with-chlorinated-chicken/

If it’s perfectly natural for colonised chickens to be walking around in their own excrement this might explain their historical immunity to campylobacter built up over many years. One reason (or excuse) for keeping battery hens in cages in sheds was they were given trays positioned underneath them to catch their droppings which was then collected and disposed of.

If washing is to be discouraged to prevent cross contamination in a domestic environment, I dread to even contemplate the amount of cross contamination that might take place during a processing factorys conditions and how this can possibly be completely preventable.

Beryl, I agree that it is most unlikely to be completely preventable, however many precautions are taken and however careful the processing is. I think the most we can hope for is a much reduced prevalence and that the dangerous levels of >1000 cfu/g are very much reduced. Nonetheless it does seem that significant progress is being made towards improving the situation.

The final steps are either freezing ( but still only reduces campylobactor and its degree but does not seem to eliminate it completely), cooking it properly which destroys it, or not eating it at all.

I recently watched a video of a chicken being washed in a domestic kitchen under UV light or something similar and it certainly brought it home to me the extent of the cross contamination. Quite worrying to say the least.

Indeed, and it’s always been that way. We have never washed our chickens, only cooked them, since washing them in anything less than undiluted bleach simply aids the spread of nasties around the kitchen.

Some years ago we developed our own protocol for dealing with chicken (and meat). I bought an auto-dispenser for handwash, then ensured we had a supply of sterilizing gel for it. We already have a sterile bin for the chicken wrappers so all our ‘protocol’ involves is preparation (turning the tap on first), carefully opening the chicken packaging to minimise risk of splashing, removal by hand of the chicken pieces or whole chicken, then disposal of the packaging before finally using the dispenser for handwash and the already running tap to rinse. Seems convoluted, I know, but it seems to work.

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Yes, and I as a child used to enjoy raw milk straight from the cow – delicious.
But later I almost died from Bovine T. B. contracted from that milk, as did thousands of other children
——
Have you ever seen how riddled with mites and other blood sucking, disease transmitting bugs chickens are?
Then there’s fecal matter – the main vector for salmonella transfer
—-
Are you also a Health & Safety @ Work hater ?

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It is one’s understanding that ”The Four Yorkshiremen” sketch was written and performed before ‘ Python was invented, si thee

Yes – contact with chicken isn’t going to harm you. The danger is when food gets contaminated.

Please could Which? have a look at the design of fridges. There should be no ‘salad chiller’ compartment at the bottom because that’s where raw meat should be stored to avoid juices from contaminating other food. Obviously the same applies to the fridge section of a fridge-freezer.

Most fridges have a substantial shelf above the salad and vegetable compartments but risks remain as any juices could run to the edge of that shelf and drip down into the salad tray.We keep uncooked meat in a clear plastic box that sits on a shelf so any leakage is contained. That seems to deal with the problem given the poor internal layout of the fridge compartment. I agree that storing raw meat at the lowest level would be preferable and having salads and vegetables at a higher level would also be more convenient as we are in and out of those trays all day.

I wonder how many think about cross-contamination. It has been suggested that more cases of campylobacter result from cross-contamination than undercooked food.

Supermarkets have helped by introducing good leakproof packaging for raw meat but until recently poultry was usually packed in a single shrink-fit plastic bag that could easily be damaged or leak at the closure.

There are double standards – today I bought a pack of four pears which were protected in a contoured styrofoam tray and overlaid with a hard transparent shell all tightly bound in cling film, yet a much more expensive fresh chicken is barely protected in comparison.

That’s ‘coz if dropped, the chick will bounce -but the fruit will get damaged.

Exactly – if the chicken is dropped the packaging might tear without being noticed allowing leakage. Nobody’s at risk from a damaged pear packet. I’m not saying don’t protect the pears but at least double wrap the chickens in strong material.

Josef is right. Supermarkets put a lot of effort into packaging fruit to avoid waste, particularly the supposedly ripe offerings that command the highest prices. The most elaborate example I have seen is what I can only describe as ‘mango nests’ used by Morrisons to protect their ripe mangos.

That reminds me that Morrisons have challenged the FSA figures for campylobacter contamination: foodmanufacture.co.uk/Food-Safety/Morrisons-investigates-difference-in-food-poisoning-bug-results

The function of a commercial enterprize, such as a supermarket chain, is to make a profit so that it may pay a dividend to its shareholders.
If you want a ”Service”, then say so, and pay so.
You let OUR essential Services = the Utilities plus transport, Care homes, etc be turned into profit centres.
Now you’re allowing OUR=N H Service to be turned into a profit centre – a few leaky chicken bags or bruised pears, will be small potatoes then, chums.

Very true.

“I think the most we can hope for is a much reduced prevalence and that the dangerous levels of >1000 cfu/g are very much reduced.” It would not be safe to assume that lower levels of contamination are safe, and the FSA has never claimed this. The data on the FSA site has figures of 30,000 cfu/g in this category.

Since campylobacter figures were first published, I have been following how they are interpreted by the press and the public. I wonder how many of the science correspondents know what cfu/g represents. The Daily Mail made a bit of a blunder in a recent article, even if they were trying to be helpful: “More than one in four of all the chickens sold by Morrisons – 25.7per cent – carried the highest level of contamination, which the FSA puts at 1,000 coliform units (cfu) per gram.” Coliform units indeed. 🙁

Only when we see a significant reduction in reported campylobacter infections can we be sure that the problem is being tackled effectively. From what I have read, campylobacter contamination is mainly on the surface rather than in the meat itself. I would like to know what potential there is for avoiding cross-contamination of carcasses during processing and by reducing faecal contamination by more thorough cleaning.

The latest FSA report states ” The results of the first quarter of testing from July to September 2015 show a decrease in the number of birds with the highest level of contamination…………………Research has shown that reducing the proportion of birds in this category will have the biggest positive impact on public health. “.

No suggestion has been made that lower levels are “safe”. We must be realistic about what can be achieved but no one has to buy chicken if they consider it “unsafe”. I would be happy to see a large warning label to the effect that “chicken can carry levels of campylobacter that can make you ill and it therefore needs thoroughly cooking in accordance with instructions.”

We cannot ignore the precautions necessary in preparing different kinds of food. I don’t know whether domestic science (presumably now “food technology”) is still taught in schools but preparation for life is something we should pass on to our children, one way or another.

If it is just a case of education and self-discipline, why do we have so many cases of campylobacter infections? Education and self-discipline will not help if you are a victim of food poisoning after eating out.

Until there is a major incentive for the industry to lower campylobacter contamination, I don’t think we are going to find out what can be achieved. Perhaps we will see continued pressure, in the same way that there is pressure to progressively lower vehicle emissions.

It is not “just a case”, but education in food safety can only help present and future cooks. As I said about labeling, if people understand there is a risk with chicken they can decide what precautions to take – including, if you so choose, not to select it in restaurants, take-aways and chip shops or, indeed, as you say you have done, don’t eat it at all.

Do you suggest that “industry” is not doing all it can to reduce campylobacter? Do you have suggestions as to what else they should be doing? I’d support any realistic proposals to help the farmers, processors and retailers. I’d also be interested to hear of evidence that they are not.

I believe unannounced inspection of processors, and encouraging responsible “whistleblowers” to report bad practices, should be part of the FSA’s strategy. Maybe it is.

The public has little information about what the industry is doing, Malcolm. Each of the supermarkets has information available online, but in most cases you will not find a link on their website. There has to be a carrot or stick (or both) to drive progress. I’ve been looking at the practical aspects and do not know what sanctions are proposed, if any.

Generally the public does not need to know details providing someone, like the FSA in this case, is driving and overseeing progress. What the public needs, as a minimum, is factual information on how to handle, in this case, chicken, assuming we have faith in the FSA.

The point I was getting at was what else should be done? It’s all well and good saying “something must be done” but this must be translated into realistic proposals and action.

I have a great deal of respect for the FSA, Malcolm. They have provided a wealth of information online. What encourages me most of all is that the tests are being carried out independently, rather than leaving them up to the retailers to arrange. There’s even the postcode of the supermarket where the most contaminated sample came from. 640,000 cfu/g, which is definitely in the >1000 cfu/g range. 🙁

I’m not sure how effective the ‘name and shame’ approach has worked. I wonder how many have switched to buying chicken in Tesco because it has fared well in tests so far, or the Co-op or Waitrose because their most recent figures are considerably better than earlier ones. I don’t discount the value of competition, but we need to make sure that all chicken is as safe as practically possible.

Beryl has suggested declaring chicken unfit for human consumption if contamination is above a threshold. I agree in principle with that sanction but am not sure if this would be practical. At present, it would have to be based on batch testing and presumably a batch that failed could be sold as cooked birds, cooked meat or turned into pet food.

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Duncan – I’m going to greatly disappoint you because I have had no involvement with radical websites. I’m certainly aware of some of the ways we are manipulated and am very disappointed by the fact that this country seems to be run more for the benefit of industry than its citizens.

Meanwhile …. back to campylobacter.

According to the FSA figures the highest contamination seems to be on the skin and in particular around the rear region of the bird.

If the FSA’s ultimate aim is to “measure campylobacter contamination on chicken collected at point of retail sale, the results would represent the risk of contamination presented in UK consumer” and this was implementable and/or feasible they could set a benchmark, ie anything below a considered and agreed cfu/g measurement, should be declared unfit for human consumption.

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Duncan, chickens like most birds, both domestic and wild, are not very selective when and where they drop their excrement. Short of following each bird around with a shovel and pan or intruducing a nappy for chickens, there is not a lot you can do to prevent chickens walking in their own or other chickens excrement. Rightly or wrongly, as I made the comparison between accepting this is what chickens do and containing it, as you would an inanimate object in what amounts to an extremely cruel factory shed for living creatures, remains highly controversial.

I am aware that humans and chimps share 95% of the same DNA, also that an animals immune system is different to ours, which no doubt ensures the survival of the different species. I am also aware that my immune system is capable of recognising certain invaders and dealing with them so that they don’t recur and also that other invaders such as viruses for example, can mutate in order to ensure the survival of their own species and can be passed on to others by air and body contact or ingestation.

I do not agree with the practice of cruelty to animals, but if we are to continue to feast on their flesh, we must be made aware of the potential risks to our health and be prepared to contract some of their unsavoury and unpleasant micro-organisms if the processing of preparation for human consumption is compromised in any way.

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Duncan I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments but domestic chickens specially bred for human consumption and not for their eggs do need protection from predators so, to some extent it is inevitable that they will be in close proximity to one another, but most probably as you say, to a lesser degree with free range chickens,

I’ve always wondered about the “unnatural” arguments. If it’s in someone’s nature to do something, then by definition that makes it natural. But with regard to intensive farming, the question is nowhere near as clear cut as some would have us believe.

The human species breeds animals for its consumption and, despite being largely vegetarian, that seems reasonable to me. We have a growing population with a seemingly insatiable appetite, and somehow we need to ensure families are able to obtain protein in sufficient quantities to ensure most folk are able to afford a balanced diet.

So why the fuss? Well, as with all human intervention, there are pros and cons. We live in a mountain farming community that has a mix of arable and livestock farms, and we all look after one another, so we all know each other’s businesses pretty well. None of the farms in our area is intensive; chickens are free to roam and get mown down by vehicles (happens more than you might think) and cattle are free to wander the fields from April to October. After October, the heavy animals (cattle, horses) are brought in. That’s for their welfare, of course: in the sodden conditions on a Snowdonian Mountain the heavy cattle can become trapped in mud or simply frozen to death. But when they’re brought inside, they then live, eat, sleep and defecate in the same place. Exactly like chickens.

So why all this fuss about intensive chicken farming? Much of it stems from ignorance and from those who have little or no knowledge about farming or the farming community, gleaning most of their ‘knowledge’ from Google. But there are different types of intensive chicken farms and not all are the evil centres of capitalist depravity some might have you believe. Some – of course – are not good, either for the animals themselves or for the produce delivered. But there’s a few simple questions that those who oppose all forms of intensive farming can’t answer. Without intensive farming how can the costs of the produce be maintained at current low levels? We’re a comparatively small island nation with a disproportionally large population. How does the farming community meet the needs of society without intensive techniques?

Locally, we have friends who sold their lambs this year at a loss. The big supermarkets have been driving down the price of milk until local Dairy herds are threatened with extinction. It’s an intractable issue which is as far from a solution as it ever was. But we need to move beyond ill-informed comments regarding avian origins and DNA percentages and concentrate on the pressing issues of how we propose to feed a growing society with a diminishing land area and still maintain hygiene standards so that we at least do less harm than mass starvation.

Ian, we can choose to eat less meat, of course. it is an inefficient way of turning raw materials into protein. However I confess to enjoying meat, and would find it very hard to live on a meat-free or low meat diet – unless forced to. The dilemma is we only live once (or do we?). So how much self-inflicted abstinence should we be prepared to endure?

I was interested, Malcolm, when you said “we can choose to eat less meat, of course. it is an inefficient way of turning raw materials into protein”. That spurred me into tracking down precise figures and I confess to being surprised at the differences. The efficiency with which various animals convert grain into protein varies widely. With cattle in feedlots, it takes roughly 7 kilograms of grain to produce a 1-kilogram gain in live weight. For pork, the figure is close to 4 kilograms of grain per kilogram of weight gain, for poultry it is just over 2, and for herbivorous species of farmed fish (such as carp, tilapia, and catfish), it is less than 2. As the market shifts production to the more grain-efficient products, it raises the productivity of both land and water.

I fully accept what you say about enjoying meat; we are, after all, omnivores, so we can eat almost anything. But the efficiency of the grass/meal to protein conversion is highest in fish and second only to poultry, which I suppose explains why there’s so much chicken consumed.

However, with advances in recombinant DNA research I wonder how long it will be before we can grow colossal chickens devoid of any brain areas other than the parts needed to prompt growth? It would convert the process of eating poultry into more of a harvest than a cull and presumably questions regarding welfare wouldn’t apply, any more than they do to plants.

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Thank you for this contribution, Ian. That is the crux of the issue.