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

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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 . . .