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Do you agree that supermarkets must take urgent action on contaminated chicken?

Make chicken safe logo

The results are in – three out of four supermarket chickens could be infected with Campylobacter. It’s time for supermarkets to take urgent action to make your chicken safe.

In July last year, we launched our campaign to make chicken safe, calling on the Food Standards Agency to make public the results of their quarterly microbiological survey of supermarket chickens.

At the time, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was planning to withhold publishing the quarterly results of the testing and we would have been none the wiser for another year about just how contaminated supermarket chickens are with potentially deadly bacteria.

Today the FSA has published its full report into the last year of testing chickens. The results are shocking and stark – the supermarkets need to rapidly improve what they are doing to tackle Campylobacter so that the chicken on their shelves is safe. Steve Wearne, the FSA’s director of policy, said:

‘The FSA’s retail survey has been an important part of the FSA’s work to tackle Campylobacter. Thanks to the focus the survey has put on the industry, retailers and processers are starting to invest in new interventions to tackle the bug.’

Most contaminated chickens

While it’s encouraging that some supermarkets are making headway now, we’re still dismayed at the lack of progress.

The FSA report found that three in four chickens tested positive for Campylobacter and nearly one in five chickens had the highest level of contamination. However, you’re not even safe when browsing the shelves – 7% of chicken packaging tested positive for Campylobacter.

The industry and FSA agreed a target for reducing the number of the most contaminated chickens to less than 10% by the end of the year. All the supermarkets need to take urgent action to meet that target.

The FSA’s report notes that Asda has the highest proportion of chickens most infected with Campylobacter (30%). Tesco is the only retailer getting close to meeting the target at 13%, but even they have a way to go. We called for the supermarkets to publish farm to fork plans, with eight of the 10 of the major supermarkets doing so. Now they need to deliver on those plans.

It’s estimated that 280,000 people fall ill with Campylobacter poisoning each year. There are no acceptable excuses for the lack of progress that’s been made. Supermarkets and chicken processors must act and reduce levels to meet the FSA’s target by the end of this year.

Comments
Member

The report seems to be just a more comprehensive version of the interim report released by the FSA in July.
It includes fairly small samples for some retailers.

Retailers themselves have taken their own much larger samples and had them independently analysed. FSA tell me that they intend to incorporate these results in future; they agree they are admissible and will give a more robust picture. A pity this report did not take them into account (as far as I can see).

The report seems not to look at the results of action plans implemented by some of the retailers. This would only show if individual retailers contamination were shown by month or by quarter. As some retailers appear to be getting improved results from their actions it is a pity this information has not been included. Have I missed it?

FSA have extended their monitoring for another year I believe. I hope more extensive data and monitoring of individual retailers testing will be used.

Whilst campylobacter is a serious problem we should be reminded it is far from easy to solve; the aim is to reduce it to a minimum but no one knows how best to do this. So I hope this kind of conversation, and any press release, fairly summarises the whole situation and does not set up yet another scare story.

Member

I’m not sure what’s new about this; as long as we’ve eaten chicken we’ve known it was contaminated, although the precise nature of that contamination has varied, so good hygiene and thorough cooking remain the watchwords. Every aspect of poultry is at risk, including eggs, so nothing’s really changed. In the US poultry is doused in heavily chlorinated water, but I’m unsure if freshly bleached chicken is what we want.

The only thing that concerns me, slightly, is that the packaging might be contaminated. After all, that’s why they’re packaged, so clearly something has to change there. And that’s something that would be simple to achieve.

Member

You are right, Ian. There is nothing new and the public could have been told about the risks ten or twenty years ago. However careful you and your family are about hygiene and proper cooking you could be at risk when you eat out. I have provided an example below.

Member

Ian, the full report gives the data for outer packaging contamination. Two retailers show up relatively badly, one shows up particularly well. Worth having a look if you are concerned as it might help you decide where, and where not, to shop.

Member

Those retailers do relatively badly regarding the contamination of the chicken itself. 🙁

Not one of the retailers is selling chicken that achieves the FSA targets and a scientist working for Sainsbury has questioned whether the FSA targets will achieve the expected reduction in campylobacter infection.

Member

One problem with this report’s data is that it accumulates 12 months results without looking at trends since “action plans” were published. I think this is a real deficiency (unless I’ve overlooked it). Sufficient data should be becoming available now, particularly taking account of the much larger samples taken by some retailers for independent testing. I look forward to more up-to-date information from the FSA. They could, for example, begin to publish data by retailer for quarters from February onward to see if action plans are producing any encouraging results. Significantly successful initiatives could then be imposed across the industry.

Member

I do not know how to get the public to waken up to the risks of campylobacter infection.

Even if you follow all the advice issued by the Food Standards Agency you could become a victim of campylobacter – the most common cause of food poisoning – if you eat out. Even if food is properly cooked cross-contamination of cooked food or food eaten raw (such as salads) with meat juices can result in infection.

A neighbour has been in hospital for more than three months with Guillain–Barré syndrome, following a serious campylobacter infection. GB syndrome can be fatal because the paralysis affects the muscles used in breathing. It is likely that the campylobacter infection resulted from eating chicken when on holiday.

I have both compliments and criticisms of how the Food Standards Agency has handled the campylobacter problem. Focusing on the positive, I am pleased to see that FSA has published the raw data from testing in the past year. Anyone familiar with spreadsheets can easily discover the serious extent of contamination of some of the chickens tested.

Member

We will not eat chicken, but the cross-contamination of other foodstuffs from chicken packaging is a worry. It demonstrates how the highest hygiene standards have to be observed in warehousing and merchandising within the supermarkets. Do staff switch from handling chicken to other meats or products without washing their hands or replacing their protective gloves [if worn]? [The order pickers for home deliveries might be an interesting place to start.] Are the chiller cabinets cleansed adequately before replenishment – and are they also used for other products? Should chicken be quarantined in separate cabinets? Treating chicken as a special case with operating theatre standards and practices might be one way of showing people they have to wake up to the infected chicken problem and treat it with a lot more respect. Might kill the trade though . . .

Member

You are absolutely right, John. Even if you don’t buy or eat chicken, you are still at risk.

The fact that the majority of the fresh chicken is sold as pieces rather than whole birds seems to have been ignored.

Member

If you are very concerned about campylobacter, don’t buy chicken. Otherwise cook it properly to destroy the problem. I’d be choosy about eating it from takeaways. As it is a long-standing problem that has no apparent total solution we can only expect producers to minimise campylobacter (not just in chicken, but other poultry). It will be interesting to see how effective the initiatives some retailers have taken will be over the next 12 months. I would like the FSA to examine any resulting trends quarter by quarter by retailer, including using the retailers’ own independently tested results.

Member

Even if we don’t choose chicken when eating out, we are still at risk if the kitchen of a restaurant or takeaway is handling contaminated chicken. That’s the message we need to get across.

Most people are aware that raw meat needs to be cooked properly. Despite this, we have over a quarter of a million cases of campylobacteriosis in the UK every year and no doubt there will be many more that no-one knows about.

Member

Kitchen hygiene – whether at home or in restaurants – is very important. Handling raw and cooked meats together is also a major source of food poisoning, as is using food that has deteriorated, or contaminated by pests, or not stored in a cool enough environment. The list goes on. We have to trust where we eat to observe such basic hygiene. If you can’t, then avoid eating out totally.

Member

Malcolm – I believe that a great deal more should be done to tackle campylobacter. It is well established that many different measures can be effective in tackling the problem. Use them together and the combined effect will achieve more, much like compound interest.

Those who have not been following the campylobacter problem should have a look at this report about undercover investigation by the Guardian. There is a horrific video further down the page. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/27/dirty-chicken-scandal-campylobacter-eight-out-10-uk-birds-supermarkets-asda

Much of the chicken processed for retailers is done by the 2 Sisters Food Group and Faccenda. 2 Sisters lists Aldi, Asda, Co-op, KFC, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose as their customers.

The article starts by saying that Prof Tim Lang advises us not to buy chicken. If enough people heeded this advice the poultry industry would be forced to take action and clean up its act.

Member

Wavechange, I’d be interested to hear what measures you would advocate to reduce campylobacter (apart from those already published in action plans) and their known impact.
As far as last years’ Guardian article is concerned I would like all food premises to be routinely subject to unannounced inspections, and employees encouraged to report, in confidence, poor standards to target this. One group who should be looking at this is Trading Standards. However a recent report on “Trading Standards in challenging times” says:
“the current pressures on budgets have increasingly led to food inspection work becoming largely reactive in response to complaints, rather than proactive in sampling and testing products to check compliance with the stated specifications and contents.”
Not a good omen. Unless we are prepared to fund these resources we will suffer increasingly.
As Trading standards seems in principle to be the key public ally of a consumers’ organisation perhaps Which? should instigate a campaign to have it properly resourced, and maybe a super complaint to raise public awareness and a response from government. “Scandalous TSO situation allows shocking practices by greedy food companies to rip off our health”. 💡

Member

Malcolm – For a start, I would advocate not purchasing chicken for the reason I explained above. A marked drop in sales could do a lot to wake up ideas in the food industry.

As a short-term measure it would be worth looking at frozen chicken, since freezing seems to be an effective measure in decreasing the extent of contamination.

I presume that unannounced inspections already take place, but do we, the public, get to know the results? Was any action taken against the companies mentioned in the Guardian investigation? As has been pointed out, the welfare of the animals would be affected if the production line was stopped but in the circumstances the meat could be turned into pet food rather than appearing on the shelves of the supermarkets. That would mean a loss of profits – and profit is more important than public safety.

I would like all the companies involved to be more honest with us. Looking at the action plans that have been published, they are marketing their companies as doing a fine job in tackling campylobacter and there is never any admission that they have let their customers down in the first place. In other Conversations we have had a representative of the appliance industry who seems intent on denying consumer rights and keen to push us to buy expensive products with a high profit margin.

This should not be a competition between retailers. All food needs to be safe, irrespective of where it is purchased from, and irrespective of price. One advantage of the retailers using the same processing factories is that campylobacter control measures are being shared.

Member

wavechange, “This should not be a competition between retailers.” As I commented above in relation to the various retailers’ action plans: “Significantly successful initiatives could then be imposed across the industry.”
As for companies “admitting their guilty past” I see mea culpa as of no value. I doubt they deliberately provide campylobacter. It is not the simple problem that some portray. What matters is taking action to minimise it. If anyone is so concerned about chicken then just avoid it. I’ll continue to buy chicken from M&S until I decide they have a problem.

Member

I can’t see how people justify eating chicken on taste and flavour grounds, let alone any hygiene problems.

Member

It’s cheap, never tough, has little gristle, bland, can easily be flavoured and it’s cheap.

Member

I would start up several brand new test farms around the country where chickens had not previously inhabited and where they could have rotational grazing areas. The farms would be started with thoroughly clean eggs not chickens.

If this was successful, I would shut down every chicken farm in the country. They may be allowed to reopen when they had been thoroughly cleaned and if the birds grazing areas could be rotated.

Overcrowded battery farms with birds living in their own faeces has to become a thing of the past.

You have to start at the root of the problem.

Member

alfa, that seems a positive approach, rather than the “something must be done”. I wonder if there are already chicken farms on brand new sites that would show whether or not they show a better campylobacter result. Perhaps looking at small producers could also see whether they have any better outcomes. Maybe Which? could take this up with the FSA?

Member

Small farms might depend on how they started. If they bought chicks to start their farms, they could already have been infected. Eggs on the other hand seem to be fairly free of campylobacter except externally on their shells. If the eggs were cleaned then incubated in a fresh environment, it would be interesting to see the results.

At the moment all the media attention seems to be on the supermarkets to do all the work and maybe they do have a case to answer for if they source from specific farms that are likely to be overcrowded and infected.

Strong measures were needed for BSE and I think the same needs to happen with Campylobacter. Otherwise the problem is not going to go away.

The worrying side is cats, dogs, other pets and wild birds can be carriers. Have they always been carriers or are they being infected from the worst farms and the bacteria silently spreading.

Member

alfa, many think the “strong measures” taken to deal with BSE were a panic and ill-informed response – probably a bit like badger culling.
As you say, campylobacter is more widespread than just chickens but it can be dealt with by taking simple precautions. I would simply like to see the facts in front of consumers, and the hysteria and panic taken out of it.
Looking at M&S results before and after their actions seems encouraging, although it is early days and they only cover 9 months. They took 487 samples between Aug 2014 and April 2015 for independent testing ( by comparison the FSA took 130 samples in a year). Before the action plan the results were:
47% below 100 cfu/g
40% 100 – 1000
12% above 1000.
After the actionplan commenced:
67% less than 100 cfu/g
25% 100 – 1000
7% more than 1000.
However it is not a full year, there may be a seasonal effect and only more testing will reveal what is happening. This is the kind of information I hope the FSA will publish for all individual retailers.

Member

I’ve looked at the M&S corporate site and cannot find the results for the final quarter. Hopefully they will show improvement, but a Tesco chicken remains the best bet from the figures on the FSA website.

Member

I can also only see up to April for M&S. Remember the FSA figures (like Tescos) are only a year’s average. they do not show trends. That is why I want to see how effective new measures are.
The larger sample taken by M&S’s independent test lab yields their average figures over 9 months as:
60% less than 100 cgu/g
30% between 100 and 1000
10% greater than 100.
About the best of the table on this basis, but I suspect if you took all the independently tested results into account from those retailers who took the trouble we would have a better picture of the current position, and perhaps where best to buy our chicken.

Member

Malcolm, you may be right on the response to BSE but the point is, strong measures were taken and the problem solved.

As I see it, Campylobacter is just one more problem everyone pussyfoots around, doing their bit in the name of improving the situation , but no-one takes hold of it by the horns and gets down to a nitty gritty solution that will be unpopular with many.

With chicken, culling would be unnecessary, just run down the stock and go from there.

I am also against badger culling. A humane solution needs to be found, but that would involve money that no-one is willing to spend.

Member

From the point of view of animal welfare, I would like to seen the end of battery farming, alfa.

I’m fairly sure your approach has been tried by organic farmers with free-range flocks. The campylobacter strains that are the main problem are present in the environment and as soon as one chicken becomes a carrier, then it can be spread easily via faeces. Only some birds become carriers but the mass processing helps to spread the bacteria to clean carcasses.

There is a lot of current interest in how organic chicken compares with battery chicken but not enough tests have been done to draw useful conclusions. Organic chickens generally have longer lives before slaughter and use of antibiotics is not permitted. I recall reading that it is helpful to ensure that chickens have clean drinking water at all times, so not all the measures to control campylobacter are highly sophisticated.

We would all be so much better informed if we had the opportunity to see chicken production first hand but I’m not sure I could cope with this.

Member

I have seen TV programmes where the poor chickens have standing room only and the conditions have been pretty disgusting.

I believe even animals bred for human consumption are entitled to a reasonable quality of life and battery farm hens certainly don’t get any.

Member

Perhaps children should learn about where their food comes from, alfa. I have been told that free-range farming is not very good either, but maybe that is propaganda.

When on holiday I was introduced to a farmer with 100,000 battery chickens, not broilers but for egg production. The aim is to produce as near to one egg per day, every day and when production falls off they are slaughtered. There is so little meat that once the legs have been removed for shipping abroad, the carcasses used to produce soup.

Member

The report does look at the effect of rearing regime – standard, free range, organic. I suspect the samples from organic were too small to be significant, but on the information given, organic were better at very low levels (below 100) but worse at the high levels (above 1000). Since the majority of chicken produced will be by intensive methods, the focus should be on improving these. Maybe if one of the other regimes proved significantly better we could apply the results generally but no indication here.

Member

“I presume that unannounced inspections already take place”

You’d perhaps be surprised to learn that most places know when they’ll be inspected. If not officially notified, then they have ways of finding out, which include people working in the inspectors’ offices.

Member

Disappointed but not surprised, Ian. 🙁

Member

I would hesitate to say that “most places know when they’ll be inspected”, Ian, but there is probably a certain amount of leakage. The objective of inspections is to achieve compliance with the food hygiene regulations and food safety legislation, not to condemn or close down establishments. I do not support pre-warnings of inspections [apart from anything else, the public health inspectors would be putting themselves and their careers at risk of being reported for such an act]. The sort of people who operate a dodgy take-away will probably not have many moral scruples if they don’t get the inspection result they wanted and are just as likely to blow the whistle..

Member

There are effective ways of controlling campylobacter using chemicals. For example can use chlorine bleach or peroxyacetic acid. Chemical treatment is widespread in the US (maybe not in all States) but not currently in Europe.

The European consumer association BEUC published a position paper last year. One of the concerns is that hygiene standards could decline if we rely on chemical treatment. See: http://www.beuc.eu/press-media/news-events/peroxyacetic-acid-rinsing-poultry-meat-beuc-position-paper-published

On balance I would prefer to improve standards in growing and processing but TTIP (proposed free trade agreement between Europe and the US) could push Europe towards chemical treatment.

I agree with @alfa that we should have a robust approach to the campylobacter problem, like we did with BSE.

My concern is about human suffering, but it might have greater impact to look at the financial cost of time off work, hospital treatment and other NHS costs.

Member

The FSA have, I believe, considered chemical treatments. Many would not, I think, like our food soaked in chemicals when proper cooking can deal with the problem,
One comment from the USA says: “Chlorine and peracetic acid are used to treat chicken at the processing plant where a federal poultry inspector died after coughing up blood and his lungs and kidneys failed. Both are toxic chemicals known to cause lung damage, among other health hazards. USDA inspectors and poultry industry employees across the nation have also suffered from asthma, burns, rashes, irritated eyes, and sinus problems that they attribute to chemical exposure.
Use of these toxins and other antimicrobials to treat chicken contaminants will increase because of the pending poultry-inspection guidelines that state “all carcasses would remain on the line to be treated with the on-line anti-microbial agent”. In other words, all poultry products would be doused with an agent such as trisodium phosphate, chlorinated water, or acidified sodium chlorite prior to reaching consumers.”
This may be a slightly biased response – I don’t know – but we condemn chemicals in food quite often and I’d prefer not to see them proliferate. Can you trust the supplier to use them correctly? I’d prefer to see non-chemical measures used if possible.

Member

To take another quotation from the same US website: “Chickens can soak in “fecal soup” for up to an hour before being packaged for consumers.”

That is what we are up against in the UK too. But we have moved on and now our chicken marinaded in faeces is bagged ready for the oven.

Member

Well, is this really the case? I doubt it. the current situation is not like this at all. But if you have been scared by the headlines then maybe apart from avoiding chicken you could restrict yourselves to frozen chicken; that appears to be very effective at dealing with campylobacter; better than chemicals in my view. Still cook it well though.

Member

All I’m scared of is what is going on in the food industry, Malcolm. 🙁

I cannot claim any great knowledge of campylobacter but having spent my working life in the field of microbiology I believe I have some appreciation of the problem.

As I have said, I don’t want to see use of chemicals as an alternative to effective measures to control campylobacter contamination.

It’s interesting to explore how we look at chemicals, because it may be necessary to take a balanced view. We treat tap water with chlorine to make it safe to drink. This is universally seen as a sensible use of chemical treatment in the developed world. Preservatives used in sausages and cooked meats are a better alternative to the risk of food poisoning. It’s interesting that most of us accept that chlorination of water is acceptable, even though we might boil or filter it to remove the taste, yet chlorine washing of chicken is seen as evil. Search for ‘chlorine chicken’ to see some extreme views.

I must have a look to see if there is any new information about the the effect of freezing on the survival of campylobacter. The sensitivity to low temperature is exploited in the process of rapid surface chilling developed by BOC in collaboration with Bernard Matthews.

I don’t buy chicken for various reasons, including the treatment of the animals, I would rather eat meat I enjoy and more recently because I have learned more about the poor hygiene conditions in the industry.

Member

Malcolm: you mention Trading Standards but I don’t know if you’re aware they now barely exist? Most of their referral work has been assumed by CAB, while TS departments have been routinely slimmed down or closed.

Member

Ian, I am indeed aware and I think it is a serious loss. CAB have far too much to do, members of the public cannot approach the TS group direct it seems, and they only act (when they do) reactively not proactively as they should.
There is a report “THE IMPACT OF LOCAL AUTHORITY TRADING STANDARDS IN CHALLENGING TIMES” that makes for sad reading. It includes the lack of proper surveillance of the food industry and food outlets.
As they should be a bastion of consumer support I would like Which? to lobby hard to get a TS organisation properly funded.

Member

Malcolm has been at the forefront on this site of alerting us to the progressive reduction of active Trading Standards and Consumer Protection activity, deploring the transfer of the ‘front desk’ to the under-resourced and inexperienced Citizens Advice service, and the transition of TS to a reactive role in which it waits until there is a body of complaints or concern before it acts.

There is no doubt that TS has suffered disproportionately from local government cuts although some reductions have probably arisen from new technology in undertaking the traditional weights & measures functions. The testing of all weighing and measuring devices was routinely undertaken periodically, as well as the check weighing or measuring of all products [e.g. bread, coal, beer] that were required by law to be supplied in prescribed weights or volumes, giving opportunities to look at other aspects of the business [like price markings]. Some of these requirements have passed with the changes in society or as a result of legislation abolishing some of the regulations [e.g. pubs are no longer required to display the prices of drinks]. Unfortunately the resources released by these changes have not been redeployed into consumer outreach and protection. There is also a loss of public accountability as Consumer Advice is a remote and unknown organisation without any democratic interface.

I am not aware of any local authorities having closed their trading standards departments as you allege. They still have statutory responsibilities for a wide range of buying and selling situations and the investigation and prosecution of illegal practices. Norfolk County Council maintains a trading standards function but it is probably a shadow of its former scale. A few recent enforcement actions published on their website show the kind of things they are now dealing with –
:: Thetford Convenience store owner sentenced at Norwich Magistrates Court for selling baby food and food products without the correct labelling in English – 5 August 2015
:: Great Yarmouth Shopkeeper sentenced for illegal tobacco offences – 6 July 2015
:: Two Norwich shops give undertakings not to sell New Psychoactive Substances – 28 May 2015
:: Two directors and salesman for Norfolk roofing company sentenced at Norwich Crown Court – 16 January 2015

The reports on each case make interesting reading and the sentences given by the courts were quite steep, involving imprisonment in most cases, reflecting the amount of work put in by TS to bring successful prosecutions. I imagine this did not represent the entirety of their work, but I think it shows they are concentrating on important issues. The new government has failed to appoint a minister with responsibility for consumer affairs and unfortunately it is doubtful if anything will now be done to reverse the trend in the run down of the TS service and consumer protection generally.

Member

I see this differently. I believe that what Citizens Advice does is to look at individual cases and decide whether to refer them to Trading Standards or elsewhere. This is a well established way for organisations to operate efficiently, even though it’s frustrating for those of us who are quite sure who we need to deal with. If Trading Standards had to listen to problems and then tell people that they should contact Citizens Advice or another organisation, resources would be wasted.

The demands on Trading Standards have become much greater thanks to the rise in online trading and imports. Until this or another government take action the situation is unlikely to improve.

Member

The problem with deceitful supermarket pricing could, for example, have been dealt with by Trading Standards in the good old days, in response to individual complaints. I doubt that CAB will do that; they have far more to do than they are capable of – pension advice being a case in point – and I doubt they have the expertise needed to evaluate many complaints. We need to properly resource organisations that should be protecting consumers, including a government minister.

Member

Getting our protein cheaply through meat or poultry has long been associated with risk. Even Cannibalism was known to present health risks, not least to the unfortunate being cannibalised. Although I certainly would prefer not to have freshly bleached chicken for lunch (we’re mainly fish eaters, anyway) the only thing that concerns me is the packaging contamination. They could fairly cheaply and easily eliminate that risk.

Member

John: the leakage regarding impending inspections is widespread in small seaside towns, for instance, where – because of a small community – most folk already know each other. So the very places you would want to be randomly inspected are the least likely to be so. In the major cities there are often ‘informer’ networks where a little spare cash can be gained for a little bit of advance warning.

But I don’t know if you’re aware inspections of food establishments concentrate mainly on paperwork? ‘Tis a tad worrying but I suppose one inspection a year can’t really yield that much more detail.

Member

Thank you, Ian. The overall objective is to make sure that any food establishment is compliant with all the food hygiene, food safety and health & safety requirements on every day that the premises are operating. While deprecating it, If that is effectively achieved by cooperation between the enforcers and the enforced against, I can live with it. It probably saves an enormous amount of time in procedural formalities that can be put to better use in more inspectionsand follow-up work.

I frequently read the inspection reports produced by Norwich City Council’s environmental health officers which are published on line in full and I would disagree with you that the inspections concentrate mainly on paperwork. This charge is frequently laid but rarely substantiated. A part of the visit is normally devoted to checking the record-keeping [some of which is a statutory requirement] and documentation [most of the premises having themselves elected to follow a prescribed evidential process] to assess the degree of compliance. Deficiencies are frequently found which is serious because delinquency in these matters might indicate where the inspectors should be looking in the control of foodstuffs in the kitchen and the maintenance of correct hygiene and safety standards throughout the restaurant all the way from the back gate to the dining table. It is clear from the reports I have read that the greater part of the time is actually spent checking every part of the premises for cleanliness; freedom from vermin, infestations, and contamination; correct storage and temperature control of food; electrical and physical safety; first aid and health & safety compliance including workwear; kitchen management including proper treatment of cookware, utensils, tableware and cutlery; and sanitary provisions. Journalists from the regional newspaper recently followed the inspectors on a programme of visits and reported on them. There was a series of double-page spreads over three days highlighting the regulations, the food hygiene ratings, and the enforcement procedures. It was a major exercise in public information that benefitted the trade and consumers alike.

Any public official that gives advance warning of an inspection in return for a little cash is being extremely foolhardy. If it should happen that there was a food poisoning incident at a premises there would be a full scale investigation and it would almost certainly come out if there had been a tip off about an inspection leading to a favourable report. I suppose it might happen in some places, and not all public officials are above temptation, but to expose yourself to the potential for blackmail, put your entire career at risk, and face prosecution, for the sake of “a little spare cash” would be ludicrous. The price for such jeopardy would far exceed what a small-time take-away could afford, and they are not usually so daft as to ignore the risk that a public official dishonest enough to take the inducement is just as likely to betray the perpetrator.

In my opinion one inspection a year is not enough overall, and sometimes even this interval is stretched. I believe every establishment should be inspected at least once a year, that random second and third inspections at a proportion of the premises should be carried out to keep them all on their toes, that any change of management should lead to a further inspection, and that no establishment should be allowed to bump along in the bottom category with a food hygiene rating of only one or two. Premises with a zero rating should, obviously, be closed down until the Council is satisfied that it is capable of achieving and operating sustainably at a rating of three. I would like to see full publication of the inspection reports and display of the ratings on the outside of premises to be mandatory [although refusal to do so usually speaks for itself].

Member

I suggested that a temporary solution might be for supermarkets to switch to selling frozen chicken: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/11239631/Freezing-chicken-can-cut-risks-of-food-poisoning-bug-say-scientists.html

The Food Standards Agency has supported a project at the University of Bristol. This focused on chicken liver rather than whole chicken but the benefits are likely to be the same: http://www.food.gov.uk/science/research/foodborneillness/b14programme/b14projlist/fs101025

The food industry seems to have accepted that rapid surface chilling is a worthwhile intervention to cut down campylobacter contamination on whole chicken, but why not freeze the birds, which will be a more effective control measure?

Member

Consumers who are concerned can already buy frozen chicken. Campylobacter will, according to the FSA, be unlikely to ever be eliminated as it is widespread in the environment. So the aim is to reduce it to a minimum. There will still be a residual, but smaller (hopefully much smaller), risk it seems.

Member

I would like to see stronger evidence of the benefits of buying frozen chicken, but if than can be obtained then the Food Standards Agency should promote this, in the same way that they campaign to warn us of the dangers of washing chicken.

I am more optimistic about a solution. I understand that most chickens are not infected by campylobacter despite intensive rearing. Rapid diagnostics are under development, for example biosensors that could be used to test individual birds before slaughter. Until that happens, I believe there is scope for redesign of processing plant to decrease the extent of contamination of ‘clean’ birds with faeces laden with campylobacter.

Member

FSA report states “The prevalence of Campylobacter was higher for chilled chicken (47.6%) than
for frozen (13.6%). The enumeration results, from the 927 samples tested also show that, when detected, levels of Campylobacter (cfu/sample) were
significantly lower (p=0.006) on frozen samples. ”
“Freezing is a proven effective intervention to control campylobacter contamination of poultry meat. ”
NHS say” Freezing raw chicken reduces levels of Campylobacter but does not eliminate it completely. The safest way to kill all traces of Campylobacter is by cooking chicken thoroughly.”
WHO report “Freezing of naturally contaminated carcasses followed by 31 days of storage at -20°C has been shown to reduce Campylobacter by 0.65 to 2.87 log10 cfu/g.
My inexpert view would still be to avoid chicken if you are concerned, to cook it properly if you want to eat chicken, and to wait to see how effective the different interventions being trialed by producers are in reducing the incidence of campylobacter.
If, as seems likely, campylobacter can never be eliminated from poultry then we should still expect to have to handle and cook it carefully as a routine.

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Freezing is one of the widely used techniques for long-term storage of bacteria in laboratories. Every freeze-thaw cycle results in some loss of viability, which varies according to the organism. While frozen, there will be little change in the numbers of bacteria that have survived. In order to push the food industry towards selling frozen chicken, I believe we need stronger evidence of the benefits.

I am not convinced that we need to eliminate campylobacter. We have evolved ways of coping with lower levels of most microorganisms, although there are some very important exceptions. Getting rid of the heavily contaminated chickens would be a good start. The raw data on the FSA website shows just how contaminated a small proportion of samples were.

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I agree with the final paragraph, WC. We have to live with all types of bacteria in the environment so attempting to eliminate campylobacter would, I suspect, merely provide a golden opportunity for another and possibly more pernicious, opportunistic nasty to move in. If they could simply ensure the outer bags are reasonably safe I’d certainly be happy.

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I agree that the outer bags used for chicken and other raw meat should be free from contamination. I don’t want to see chlorine washes used for chicken but perhaps it would be useful to do this with the packaged birds.

A stout leak-free bag, such as a ‘bag for life’ in decent condition is useful to transport raw meat from the supermarket. After use, turn it inside-out and wipe it with a little bleach on a cloth.

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Malcolm: yes, the University of Birmingham Institute of Local Government Studies’ report makes for dismal reading and the reality is that as far as many are now concerned the TS departments have ceased to exist. More worryingly, an individual attempting to achieve some action about a rogue company now sees little in the way of ‘official’ help.

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“to expose yourself to the potential for blackmail, put your entire career at risk, and face prosecution, for the sake of “a little spare cash” would be ludicrous.”

Odd, what some people will do for money…

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Yep . . . it’s all on the premise that they won’t get caught.

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http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/food/how-safe-is-your-ground-beef

This is an interesting article showing the US version of Which? in action. The point it raises in my mind is that it would be nice to know we are not being myopic by simply looking at chicken in the UK. A few reassuring words , or at least an appreciation of risks from other meats might help in making shopping choices this weekend.

It also raises the question of meat imports such as chicken and other meats and whether TTIP would lower standards.

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Thanks for that report Diesel. “Well done” I should say.

It surprises me that food establishments are permitted to even offer to serve underdone meat. Some won’t, and others rely on a written warning in the menu to absolve themselves from any repercussions.

It’s interesting that in the USA the term ‘conventional cattle rearing’ applies to a system that we regard as unnatural and that ‘grass-fed cattle’ are the minority, whereas here, grass-fed is the norm for beef production [dairy production here is becoming an increasingly mechanised and indoors-only operation but still far less intensive than the American feed lots used for fattening cattle reared for beef, the description of which in the article is quite off-putting].

Because of the significant price differential between grass-fed [high] and intensively-reared [low] beef there is a worry that people on low incomes will be unable to afford the much safer, although never entirely risk-free, pasture-grazed beef in its ground form used for burgers. Due to other tendencies within their diets that reduce their tolerance of bacterial infection this puts poorer families at higher risk of illness. This might not yet be a significant problem in Europe where most beef products in the home market derive from traditionally-reared cattle, but we need to keep a watch on it and look out for the practices of the budget eating-out market which will source supplies from elsewhere if there is a price advantage in doing so. That could be where the TTIP bites.

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John, I like your avatar and note that its colour matches that of the infected birds in the introduction. I presume it is a cuckoo in disguise? You should have it checked for campylobacter; wild birds are carriers and spread the infection through their faeces.

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Well, Malcolm, although Eccles was originally employed to tell the time by cuckooing on the hour every hour and was therefore described in the contract documents as a Cuckoo, it has certainly been remarked that he has more than a touch of the Cockatiel about him, especially the beautiful plumage – Norwegian Blue I believe. So there is a distinct possibility of a Trades Description Act infringement but I do not wish to register a complaint.

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The fact that campylobacter can be passed on from birds and other animals has been suggested as one reason why some studies have reported greater contamination than in chickens kept indoors.

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Contamination of drinking water – such as puddles – drunk by birds outside is a recognised problem I believe.

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I’ve mentioned this a couple of times. I believe that it is easier to keep drinking water clean in battery farming, not that I’m keen to promote this.

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Attention has certainly focused on chicken, but only on whole chilled chicken, not pieces of chicken, minced chicken or frozen chicken. It’s well known that there are problems with turkey too, but that seems to have escaped attention.

The risks associated with different foods deserves a separate Conversation, and that could be a good time to introduce concerns about the impact of TTIP. Having safe and wholesome food – wherever we buy it and however much we pay – is far more important than most of the issues we debate.

I see that the use of peroxyacetic acid washes are being considered in the EU, but there are concerns that this could result in a decline in hygiene in the poultry industry.

The risk associated with eating undercooked steak is fairly small but it’s foolhardy to eat undercooked burgers etc. We might end up with adding preservatives to minced meat, as with sausages, which would be a good opportunity to look at the cancer risk of using these preservatives in uncooked foods.

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This recent report is rather a worrying indictment of what goes on when you press for a reduction in campylobactor whilst at the same time the medical profession is calling for a reduction on antibiotic use in animals.

It should be noted that the drug mentioned is banned for animal use in many countries – but can be bought off ebay …

“Press Release: Dramatic increases to UK poultry industry’s use of ‘critically important’ antibiotic as human resistance reaches record levels

New data obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from the UK’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) has revealed that the poultry industry’s use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics, which are classified as critically important in human medicine by the World Health Organization (WHO), went up by 59% between 2013 and 2014 [1].

The significant increase in fluoroquinolone use in poultry farming has been mirrored by rising resistance to the antibiotics in human campylobacter infections, which has reached record levels. Scientists believe the overuse of fluoroquinolones in poultry is contributing to higher levels of resistance in human infections, as resistant bacteria can pass from chickens to people. Strong evidence that this is happening led to the US banning fluoroquinolone use in poultry in 2005.

A recently published study found that nearly 50% of campylobacter cases at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital were resistant to fluoroquinolones [2]. The scientists involved in the research said that resistance is now so high that these antibiotics can no longer be relied upon for treating campylobacter infections. They pinpointed the veterinary use of antibiotics as the most likely cause of the increasing rates of resistance. Data from the VMD showed that the rate of fluoroquinolone resistance in the main type of campylobacter from poultry increased from 31% in 2013 to 44% in 2014 [3]. ”

the rest of the article is here:
sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/antibiotics-poultry-resistance/

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Thanks DT. I saw this in the news but Which? has ended its campaign about the campylobacter problem and few seem interested in continuing the discussion.

For many years, scientists have been warning about use of antibiotics in farming and unnecessary use of antibiotics by doctors – often in response to pressure from patients. Many have heard of the spread of antibiotic resistance but it is a very serious issue. I know several people younger than me who have had problems with persistent infections. For example, I know a retired hospital doctor who acquired a foot infection that spread and proved untreatable despite repeated efforts in hospital. Eventually he had his foot amputated and he has said he might lose the lower part of the leg. He had known the dangers since the infection had failed to respond to antibiotics two years earlier.

The difficulty in producing new antibiotics is that the metabolism humans and bacteria has so much in common, making it difficult to target the bacteria without harming us. Penicillins are an example of antibiotics that achieve this, by interfering with production of bacterial cell walls. A year or so ago, we heard about teixobactin, a possible new antibiotic that could do the same, but in a different way. Whether it proves useful remains to be seen. Long-term, there are various possibilities of other ways in which we might be able to tackle bacterial and other infections, but for the time being we have a major problem with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The work will have to be done in our research institutes and universities because companies are not prepared to invest large sums of money when there is a limited chance of success in developing new antibiotics.

Despite the reassurance given by supermarkets, they are still selling some heavily contaminated birds. Months after developing a complication of a campylobacter infection, a friend is able to walk with assistance but still cannot use her hands properly. This is a result of eating chicken in a restaurant.