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Supermarkets must publish their Campylobacter action plans

Which? Chicken Mascot

We have today written to the seven major supermarkets calling on them to make publicly available plans on how they will tackle Campylobacter, with clear timescales for action. Read our letter from Richard Lloyd:

Dear Chief executive,

It is now almost six weeks since the Food Standards Agency released data showing scandalously high levels of Campylobacter in chicken. Consumers need reassurance that supermarkets are taking this seriously and doing all they can to address the problem.

Nearly 30,000 people have signed up to support our campaign to ‘Make Chicken Safe’. Our latest research found six in ten consumers expressed concern about the high levels of Campylobacter found in supermarket chickens, with three-quarters saying they thought they were too high. More than half thought there wasn’t enough information available about Campylobacter levels in chicken.

While we welcome the progress made so far, we urge you to take a more visible and coordinated industry wide approach so that consumers can be confident that everything possible is being done to tackle this potentially fatal bug. We have previously been in touch with your teams and are calling for every major supermarket to publish a plan of action by the end of January and to make this publicly available and published on your website, with a timeframe for taking action.

The plan should be an integrated programme of both immediate and planned interventions along the food chain (from incentivising farmers to improve controls through to use of blast surface chilling, for example) targeted at reducing levels of Campylobacter as quickly as feasible.

We would like to secure your public support in showing consumers that you are committed to tackling this problem and look forward to hearing how you propose to take this matter forward.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Lloyd,  Executive Director

Comments
Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I am very encouraged that Which? is keeping up the pressure on the supermarkets, though perhaps the same challenge should be extended to all retailers. Marks & Spencer has already published a brief five point action plan, though I’m disappointed that they are continuing to use the 2 Sisters Food Group as a source of chicken.

The reporting of the campylobacter issue by the Guardian has been commendable and they are obviously still on the case, having already published a report that Which? has written to the supermarkets.

I have written to the Food Standards Agency, asking it to present future findings in a way that is easier for the public to comprehend. Simple bar charts are better than tables of figures and the use of technical terms such as cfu/g is not appropriate for the general public.

As far as I’m concerned, chicken and turkey are off the menu for the foreseeable future.

Profile photo of alfa
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We also have stopped eating chicken.

Have you noticed that nearly all ready meals now contain chicken? We like to keep a few in the freezer and had great difficulty find anything we wanted.

So supermarkets, please can we have more lamb or beef?

Profile photo of malcolm r
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alfa, as always, you can eat chicken if you cook it properly.

Profile photo of alfa
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malcolm,
I had food poisoning from prawns that was rather unpleasant so just the thought of eating chicken containing something that could also make me ill rather puts me off.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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alfa, I respect your feelings, but if people understand that apparently cooking chicken properly removes the likelihood of contracting a campylobacter infection then their fears should at least be rationalised. We had the same feelings over beef and BSE, eggs and salmonella. We should simply present the facts and not produce headlines such as “chicken can kill you” without qualification. So can air travel. I still would be very wary about eating chicken not cooked at home though as I’d have no knowledge of how well it was cooked.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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The larger retailers clearly can have a great impact by controlling their supply chain – in so far as control of campylobacter is possible. Publishing their data needs to be done on an agreed and consistent basis – they will try to shine the best light on their performance. While I agree with pictorial representations of data we also need the real data behind them so those with some expert knowledge of the problems can make well-informed comments.

I regularly eat chicken, turkey only twice a year, and am in good health like many millions of others – probably because we cook it properly. Don’t eat unopened cooked mussels, don’t eat undercooked pork, don’t reheat cooked food – many precautions we need to take to avoid potential illness.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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I wonder at two things.

Firstly, campylobacter is the responsibility of FSA to deal with. I support Which? in keeping the problem in the public eye but what are they doing to liaise and support FSA? Why are they, and not FSA, telling retailers what they should do. Do they regard the FSA as a failure?

Secondly, there are many other outlets that sell chicken apart from major supermarkets – maybe with less stringent quality control. How are we checking on these? Seems to me the best place to concentrate our attention is on the source of chicken – the importers and the chicken processors where many of the pracrises that can reduce campylobacter can be introduced. So what are FSA doing about this?. Manta lists 45 UK processors – some, like 2 Sisters, major ones, others smaller.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I wonder when we will find out whether the campylobacter problem is mainly related to farming or processing of chicken. I believe that the public deserves to know.

It came as a surprise to me that most of the supermarkets are using either 2 Sisters or Faccenda to provide their chicken.

Profile photo of Sam Kennedy
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Just wanted to let you know that we’re talking to the FSA regularly malcolm and thanks for all your efforts and research supporting the campaign! We want to see action at all stages of the food chain which is why we’re celebrating M&S and Co-op having published ‘farm to fork’ action plans.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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Thanks Sam.
Do you know whether the FSA are also focusing on the processors and importers and whether they will publish results for them also?

Profile photo of Sam Kennedy
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The recent data from the FSA by supermarket is from a project looking specifically at levels of Campylobacter at retail level but the FSA, like Which?, are certainly aware that tackling the bacteria requires action at all levels of the food chain. For example, they work with the National Farmers Union and the British Poultry Council through the Joint Working Group on Campylobacter.

Profile photo of wavechange
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The FSA has offered some funding to farmers who want to have their flocks tested. Here is an article on the NFU website: http://www.nfuonline.com/sectors/poultry/nfu-secure-free-on-farm-testing-for-campylobacter/

Hopefully the retailers will see the appeal of being able to advertise chicken from campylobacter-free flocks.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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There is a website created by a joint working group http://www.campylobacter.org.uk/. Might be worth keeping an eye on its content.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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The above website links to the Science Media Centre (sciencemediacentre.org) which had some expert comments. One commenter states that “in the UK, around three-quarters of chickens carry the bacteria. In Luxembourg, every single chicken has been found to carry it; in Denmark the rate is around one in five; in Estonia and Finland, fewer than one in 20 chickens has it.” I believe a good deal of our imports come from the far east. As, apparently, 34% of our chicken is imported we should be considering the flock health in the exporting country.

Profile photo of Beryl
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I have just finished reading up on the research currently being undertaken by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council @bbsrc.dc.uk. Fighting Campylobcter Food Poisoning.) The data can put you off eating chicken as Wavechange has made reference to in his comment above. There are apparently different strains – the two most common being C.jejuni and C.coli. It explains how the bug can thrive in poultry intestines. It is more rife in more parts of poultry than I at first thought.

The only solution at present is to keep up the pressure on the food chain with the use of better husbandry and blast chilling which I believe to be common practice in some hospital food. I would like to know more about the efficacy of this procedure. Apart from boycotting buying chicken meat there is not much more consumers can do other than adequate cooking (my meat thermometer indicates a temperature of 82C – 180F for fresh turkey and chicken). Strangely it is lower for fresh pork at 77C – 170F. and of course care in preparation.

Profile photo of wavechange
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BBSRC is the largest of seven UK research councils that provide research funding for our universities and eight well known research institutes, including funding for training of postgraduate students. A significant amount of BBSRC-funded research is carried out in collaboration with industry. As Beryl has said the BBSRC is involved with the campylobacter problem. BBSRC funds non-medical research and it is quite likely that the MRC (Medical Research Council) will be funding other areas of research. In this case, collaboration with hospitals, particularly teaching hospitals, is likely.

There is some reluctance to use blast chilling and steam treatment to decrease the contamination of carcasses by campylobacter. These make the chicken less appealing to customers. Freezing whole chicken and chicken pieces can decrease contamination significantly (figures vary) but frozen chicken is generally regarded as an inferior product. In fact there is a substantial number of ‘interventions’ that have been found helpful in tackling the problem. If several of these are used together we might make some real progress.

Profile photo of Beryl
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Thanks for that information Wavechange. I was always under the impression that frozen chicken was inferior and decided to test it out by using the Combi setting on my Panasonic Oven and the result was a beautiful succulent full flavoured chicken. The Combi method works by using convection (dry heat) and steam to maintain exact humidity levels, thus giving you more control of the moisture levels in food. It works on the premise for example that when it is 90F outside with high humidity, humans feel hotter than the actual air temperature. The extra humidity transfers heat faster and we noticeably can feel the difference than if it was just 90F outside with zero humidity (dry heat). You have to do a few minor calculations first in order to press all the right buttons and get it right. The meat thermometer I used registered exactly 180F when it finished cooking. I believe this is the safest and best way to cook poultry using frozen chicken and would defy anyone to tell the difference.

Profile photo of wavechange
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As long as your meat thermometer is in the coolest part of the bird, you should be safe, Beryl.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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I profess no expertise in this topic but, reading this, it seems as apparent as ever that this is not a simple topic. http://www.campylobacter.org.uk/a-guide-to-interventions/ I, like everyone, would like to see the work accelerated and improvements introduced step by step to minimise campylobactor.

I wonder whether one of the issues is, and will remain, the attitude and will of the very many farmer / processor combinations to implement and strictly control the interventions that will be required? Will a sensible outcome be to recommend just a few major large scale producers and processors who have the funds, facilities and staff necessary? Will pressure from the industry force the FSA to shy away from this solution?

The major retailers are in the best position to select and strictly monitor their producers and processors. What about chicken supplied from less well-regulated sources? I still question why the FSA seem to be focusing only on selected retail statistics, and not at the processors performance. And imported processed chicken?

Cooking chicken properly is essential whether the chicken has campylobacter or not, and appears 100% successful in killing the bacterium.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Some of the ‘interventions’ that could help cut down contamination of poultry have been known for some time and used together they could be most effective. The problem is that they cost money, either directly or by slowing down production. Perhaps freezing chicken should be added as one of the interventions. We tend to think of frozen chicken as substandard, but maybe not if there is less risk of campylobacter infection.

Your earlier comment about the extent of contamination depending on country is very interesting, but I have not managed to find out more about this.

The government is putting money into the campylobacter problem via the FSA and the research councils. It’s time for the industry to invest money too. I would be highly impressed by a retailer that was brave enough to say that it would not be selling poultry until the campylobacter problem had largely been overcome.

One of the reasons that I’m so concerned about campylobacter is because a significant part of the population takes proton pump inhibitors or other drugs to suppress acid production. Gastric acid is one of our defences against bacteria, so those taking these drugs are likely to be at more risk. This is well known but not quantified, as far as I can tell.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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“It’s time for the industry to invest money too”. Do you know that industry is not investing any money to combat campylobacter?

One retailer is continuing to invest in zero thinning, rapid surface blasting, financial incentives to farmers to achieve campylobacter-free farms, and other methods to introduce interventions that will help reduce its incidence. One processor with its retail partners is investing £10m in combatting campylobacter, another £1m including SonoSteam treatment (high temperature stream combined with ultrasound). They are also contributing to research in combination with other bodies.No doubt Richard Lloyd will report when he receives responses to Which?’s letter.

I see progress needed on two fronts. One, continuing to introduce, now, particular interventions that each will help (but not necessarily eliminate) reduce campylobacter. Two, more fundamental research tackling the source of campylobacter either to prevent its entry into the flock, or to stop it when it is present.

I still want to see imports reported on, and all processors investigated and monitored, to ensure that strict controls are actually enforced throughout the industry. FSA’s job, isn’t it?

Profile photo of malcolm r
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Beryl and wavechange, “Your earlier comment about the extent of contamination depending on country is very interesting, but I have not managed to find out more about this.” I Googled “campylobacter in Finland” and “…in Estonia” and “…. in Denmark” and all came up with detailed research papers that I scanned through as a layman.

Certainly flock contamination seems much lower in these countries and there is a suggestion this may be due to lower environmental temperatures and better sealed poultry houses. The routes by which campylobacter reach flocks – e.g. wild birds, travellers, flys, puddles of water – and the rate at which an infected bird can contaminate a whole flock of 20 000 was quite revealing to me. They also adopt a pragmatic approach – keeping negative flocks separate from positive (contaminated) at the slaughterhouse; the former make fresh meat, the latter frozen.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Thanks Malcolm. Temperature is probably a significant factor. In the UK it is well established that both campylobacter in poultry and human infections is higher in the summer months than in winter. It would be interesting to compare contamination of free-range birds farmed in the highlands of Scotland with those from the the south of England.

One of the interventions that looks promising is simply to ensure that chickens are provided with fresh tap water for drinking. The chlorine in tap water helps ensure that it is not heavily contaminated with bacteria. It’s fairly obvious that there should be no source of other water, which could be contaminated, though I have not seen this mentioned.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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Free range flocks may have access to rain water (hence the mention of puddles).

Profile photo of wavechange
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That’s my concern. But it would not be difficult to provide good drainage and remove anything that could collect rainwater. The article I read mentioned the need to disinfect the devices used to provide drinking water. It’s not difficult for the layman to understand many of the issues relating to farming and processing chicken to help control the campylobacter problem.

Member
Elvi47 says:
13 January 2015

Speaking as one who has suffered from campylobacter in the past, I applaud Which’s appeal for the major supermarkets to publish their charts. This is a very unpleasant bug to suffer from and can be fatal. I also wonder about the Cash & Carry’s, where they source their chicken from, and I also think they should also be made to publish their suppliers. We go on holidays, eat in B & B’s or in restaurants and don’t know where the chicken has come from.

At home we can only do our bit by making sure all surfaces are cleaned properly after touching the chicken and cooking the chicken thoroughly and correctly,

Profile photo of malcolm r
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If I have my sums right, 35 people have contributed to “campylobacter” conversations, 184 to “music in” shops. Does this represent our priorities? I hope not! 🙂

Profile photo of wavechange
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In one of the Conversations, over 1500 people have commented on nuisance calls. It’s a problem we can all relate to and expect sympathy from fellow sufferers.

Most cases of food poisoning are just unpleasant and may never be reported. Even if we feel confident that there is negligible risk in our own homes, there is still a danger when we eat out, the point made by Elvi47 above.

Sadly there is still a widely held belief that our bodies are capable of dealing with campylobacter. To some extent this is true because an infection will result in antibody production.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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Passing the time as I’m waiting for lunch, wondered which conversation this was? Which Conversation 2014 lists
2. We’re not fine with nuisance calls – 465 comments. (223 commenters I think).
Still a substantial number. Does the number of commenters reflect the seriousness of the topic? Or our experience of a particular problem?

Profile photo of wavechange
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Click on ‘Most commented’ from the homepage and it’s at the top of the list. The results of the poll are fairly conclusive.

I suspect that many people find Conversations from web searches and when Which? gets a mention on social media, which Which? is promoting to engage with more of the community. A good example is the number of people who post their whinges each time their mobile phone company raises their monthly payment during the contract, useful ammunition for the Fixed Means Fixed campaign.

The only campylobacter discussions I have seen elsewhere seem to relate to people with medical problems rather than how to address the problem of contaminated chicken being sold to the public. Conversations frequently turn up near the top of web searches, so hopefully we will see more input from those who have experienced a campylobacter infection.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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Phones do seem to have attracted the most attention in a number of conversations. Strange what we get most uposet about!

Profile photo of wavechange
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I would not be surprised if phones are the the most important possession for most of the population, Malcolm. Have a look at #campylobacter and you will see that a lot is happening on Twitter.

What I want to know is which member of Which? staff dressed up in a chicken outfit and stood outside supermarkets holding a placard and a letter to the chief exec.

Profile photo of alfa
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Campylobacter is not a subject many people have anything useful to contribute to unless they have been ill with it. Even then they might not know what their food poisoning was. They can still be interested in reading about it though.

No-one has come forward to admit being a chicken yet.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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I think it is important not to sensationalise campylobacter. This can be mitigated by understanding the nature of the problem and the actions being taken to tackle it, plus, most importantly, that cooking chicken properly prevents you being made ill. Given this information you might make a rational decision about eating chicken, particularly from a restaurant or take away. Facts are always useful.

Profile photo of wavechange
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It’s not just a case of avoiding chicken from restaurants and takeaways. As has been pointed out by the FSA, contamination is easily spread to cooked food and food that is eaten uncooked.

I was not aware that anyone is sensationalising the campylobacter issue, but it’s far more important not to underestimate the problem.

Profile photo of wavechange
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According to published figures, campylobacter is believed to be responsible for around 280,000 cases. Not all of these are confirmed by testing but on the other hand, it’s well known that may people don’t tell anyone if they are sick.

I would have a great deal of respect for any supermarket that stopped selling raw chicken.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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“People are being sold chickens with potentially lethal levels of bacteria” is, I think, a rather inflammatory statement. (Which? petition) Particularly so when not accompanied by relevant facts as to how we mitigate the problem by food hygiene and proper cooking. Perhaps my threshold for the use of selective facts is too low?

At home we can apply appropriate hygiene and cooking techniques which was why I made the comment about being wary of eating chicken from sources outside our control.

Simply explain the problem as it is, not under- or overestimate it. Food poisoning comes from a variety of sources, as alfa above testifies, and includes badly prepared or stored food – again largely avoided by good kitchen practise.

Profile photo of wavechange
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It’s not working, Malcolm. Look at the figures for food poisoning. Most people are aware of the need for good kitchen practice and proper cooking. As Which? says, chicken should be safe before it is sold.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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Wavechange, “Which? says, chicken should be safe before it is sold.” is self evident, but this brings us back to the core argument. At present, that situation appears not possible – we can improve it as is happening, but can’t eradicate it. We can, however, take our own precautions, and these should be publicised just as strongly as the other statements being made.

Campylobacter infections have increased by around 10% since 2000 and no one disagrees that we need to continue dealing with the problem. We need to ensure people are given the information needed to prepare food properly, we should monitor cooked-food outlets and we need to keep up the urgency and investment in researching methods to minimise its incidence and in monitoring farms, processors and retailers..

In the end, we can simply choose to stop eating chicken if we are worried about the consequences..

Profile photo of wavechange
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We have had years of procrastination, Malcolm. People are buying chicken contaminated with faeces and it can make them sick, or worse.

In my microbiology labs we would have put anything as contaminated as supermarket chicken in biohazard waste bags for safe disposal by autoclaving. But its still permissible to put chicken that is known to be contaminated on supermarket shelves.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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wavechange, i think we’ve both explored our points of view on this. I hope people cook chicken properly and that the current research minimises campylobacter.

Profile photo of wavechange
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We certainly have, Malcolm. Had it occurred to me that food poisoning was within the remit of Which?, I would have been pushing for a campaign long before now. I generally support the Which? campaigns, but feel this is more important than most, in view of the risk of serious illness or worse.

I would be interested to know about forthcoming EU legislation to tackle the campylobacter problem. That could be more effective than the best intentions of retailers.

Profile photo of Beryl
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It is fairly widely known that a bout of gastroentiritis can also trigger IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) in susceptible people that can last anything between one and five years – all relevant but maybe a little off topic?

Profile photo of wavechange
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I don’t know about IBS, but Guillain–Barré syndrome is an uncommon but quite serious problem that can be triggered by a campylobacter infection.

Profile photo of Beryl
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Post Infectious IBS always follows a bacterial infection, not viral. Guillaine-Barre sounds even more serious. Maybe the DoH should become involved by applying more pressure on Supermarkets on medical grounds, backed up by the Medical Research Council.

Member
Bernard Champness says:
13 January 2015

This is typical the way customers are taken for a ride by most English businesses.

Customers are too stupid to understand.

Money is God.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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“Customers are too stupid to understand.”.
I wouldn’t agree with that comment. “Customers” – and we all are – do understand but need to know how to pursue our rights in an effective way. A collective approach in conjunction with impartial but properly informed organisations such as Which? is, I think, necessary to be effective.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Here is an example of why we urgently need to tackle the campylobacter problem and it’s not enough just to tell the public to cook their food thoroughly: http://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/Lightwood-pensioner-died-contracting-food/story-25848120-detail/story.html

I wonder how many 86 year old pensioners are fit to ensure that chicken kiev is properly cooked. Until chicken is safe to eat perhaps ready meals should be sufficiently pre-cooked to be safe.

We know how many suspected and confirmed cases of campylobacter occur annually and the number of fatalities but I have not figures that relate to home cooked food, whether whole chicken or chicken dishes.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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wavechange, do you have a solution to eliminating campylobacter from chicken and other susceptible foods? We could freeze, which I believe eliminates it. But it does not seem so easy to eliminate it at source from what I have read, only to significantly reduce it. That will still leave thorough cooking as the certain destructive force.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Malcolm – The eventual solution to the problem could be to vaccinate chickens to that they are naturally resistant to campylobacter. My understanding is that this is still at the research stage. Even better would be to find a variety of chickens that rarely or never carries campylobacter in the gut, though I have no idea if this is a realistic possibility. In the meantime we probably have to look at a combination of the interventions that have been suggested recently.

We are at greatest risk from highly contaminated birds because we need a certain number of bacteria (the so-called infective dose) to make us ill. My suggestion is that growers, particularly those with free-range chickens that go outdoors, should ensure that the flock has clean water and no opportunity to drink rainwater or other water that could be contaminated with faeces.

Campylobacter is a relatively fragile bacterium and freezing has a significant effect on viability. I have not seen any figures that show what sort of reduction in contamination by campylobacter we could expect from freezing chicken. The rate of freezing has a considerable influence on the survival of bacteria.

Since we are more likely to import frozen than chilled meat, this could account for lower contamination in chicken from other countries.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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wavechange, I understand that freezing chicken can cut campylobacter by 90%.

This was, I thought, interesting from Food.gov: “There has been a notable increase in reported human outbreaks of campylobacter in the UK in recent years. Most of these incidents have been associated with chicken liver pâté or parfait, prepared in catering settings. In 2011, over 90% of outbreaks of campylobacter food poisoning at catering venues were linked to chicken liver pâté consumption (HPA 2011).”

Profile photo of wavechange
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Malcolm – Although I don’t know very much about campylobacter, I can say with confidence that the effect of freezing on survival of bacteria is dependent on the rate of freezing (and other factors). I’ve had a look at the paper by Mike Hutchinson’s group at Bristol and it’s encouraging to see that under their conditions of freezing of pate at -25°C, the number of viable campylobacter could at best be reduced to about 1% of the original number. It would be interesting to know what effect commercial freezing would have on campylobacter numbers in chicken carcasses.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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“The FSA has offered some funding to farmers who want to have their flocks tested.”. The NFU has negotiated funding (i.e. taxpayer’s money) for farmers “who wish to” to test their flocks. I would have though the major chicken producers would have had both the money and the wish to do this off their own backs, without the need for subsidy. Mainly to work towards clean flocks.

Merck offer a kit that claims an on-farm result in two hours (instead of the normal 48 hours through a lab) and is used just pre-slaughter. I wonder how many chickens can be tested in such a short time to give a reliable indication of a clean flock?

Profile photo of wavechange
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Farmers having their chickens tested or even doing it themselves was one of the things I had in mind when I suggested that the industry should be invest (more) money in tackling the problem.

The rapid test kits you mentioned are like a pregnancy test but do not quantify campylobacter contamination. Since we know that most chickens carry campylobacter we really need something that operates like a blood glucose test and producing a number rather than just a positive or negative, at least until most campylobacter contamination has largely been eliminated.

Having bought rapid test kits for other purposes when I was working, I know they are usually very expensive. I have not seen the price for campylobacter tests but might be able to find out.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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I wonder what testing the FSA is subsidising and to what extent?Certain major retailers are working towards camylobacter-free flocks with financial incentives to farmers.
The attached shows some research in progress at Universities into campylobacter. My take is that this shows the problem is far from simple.
http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/research/topical/food/fighting-campylobacter.aspx

Profile photo of wavechange
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This page on the BBSRC website could be improved by putting in links to the grants that have recently been awarded to the universities and research institutes, where each one has a summary of the intended research and possible impact, including links with industry where these are planned.

I don’t know what is happening elsewhere in the EU, but it would make sense for collaborative efforts. The summary of project started two years ago at the University of Leicester refers to forthcoming EU legislation on the number of chickens that are campylobacter-positive.

As you say, the problem is not simple but some aspects such as the interventions that are mentioned on the FSA website are straightforward and not necessarily expensive.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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BBSRC provide quite a bit of information including the research started in 2010 that includes involvement of the major retailers and European companies.

“The research supported by the joint call is still at a relatively early stage. However, the RISC has helped to bring together researchers with industry and with retailers. “We couldn’t have got to where we are with industry, and with supermarkets, without the strategy,” says Professor Tom Humphrey from the University of Liverpool.
Humphrey is the principal investigator on a grant from BBSRC and FSA to investigate several factors that could affect the susceptibility of chickens to Campylobacte rinfections. He is collaborating with three major European and global food companies and has received co-funding from several other companies, including all the UK’s major supermarkets. The strategy helped Humphrey leverage this extra funding, as it clearly signalled to industry the importance the UK government places on Campylobacter research. According to Humphrey, “the strategy did actually provide impetus and demonstrate to industry that this is a global problem.”

Let’s hope it is productive research.

Profile photo of wavechange
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One of the interesting observations made in a 2014 paper by the Liverpool group is that Campylobacter jejuni can significantly affect the health of chickens, despite the widespread view that it is a commensal organism that does not harm the host: “Campylobacter jejuni Is Not Merely a Commensal in Commercial Broiler Chickens and Affects Bird Welfare”

Profile photo of wavechange
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The United States is attempting to cut down on both campylobacter and salmonella in poultry. From a Food Safety and Inspection Service notice: “FSIS estimates that 81 percent were associated with parts, 13 percent were associated with whole carcasses, and 6 percent were associated with comminuted product.”

The other reports I have seen about the US situation indicate that the contamination levels in chicken carcasses are significantly lower than in the UK, possibly because chlorine washing is permitted. This is not allowed in the EU.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Marks & Spencer has published a report on progress in tackling the campylobacter problem: http://corporate.marksandspencer.com/documents/reports-results-and-publications/casestudy.pdf

336 M&S chickens were tested by a well known independent organisation, Camden BRI. Whoever produced the report is to be commended for presenting their results in a much clearer format than the Food Standards Agency did when reporting their findings to the general public last November. Look for the bar charts at the end of the report. It is obvious that with red, amber and green, red is the worst, though the numbers are not explained.

The producers have used five ‘interventions’ in an attempt to reduce campylobacter contamination of whole chicken carcasses. These could have been used years ago, perhaps with the exception of surface chilling. I have little doubt that when M&S learned that their chickens carried significantly more high level contamination than Tesco birds they realised that urgent action was needed.

But congratulations to M&S for publishing independent test results and hopefully other supermarkets and other retailers will do the same. It would be good to see the full detail but I doubt that will be published.

No-one should be complacent about campylobacter. There are an estimated 280,000 cases of campylobacter-related food poisoning a year. That is despite it being common knowledge that raw meat should be properly cooked before eating.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Some caution is needed in interpretation of the recent trials conducted on behalf of M&S. There is the possibility that the recent decline in contamination is simply related to the well established seasonal pattern of contamination – essentially lower in the winter months than in the summer. This is shown in Figure 1 the following article: http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sites3/documents/457/The%20seasonality%20of%20human%20Campylobacter%20infection%20a.pdf

Figure 2 of this article shows the association between contamination of chicken and human infection rate.

Profile photo of Andrew Collins
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Thanks for the report wavechange, it’s really appreciated. I’ve passed on your comments to our Campaigns team for their consideration. Is the ankle mending swiftly?

Profile photo of wavechange
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Much appreciated Andrew. I believe we could have had safe chicken years ago if pressure had been put on the industry. It did not initially seem right to focus on the retailers when the contamination occurs in the growing and processing stages, but it is now obvious that we should expect retailers to sell us food that is safe.

Both feet and ankles are the same size, at long last, so I’m raring to go, albeit cautiously. Thanks for your concern.

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I am sure no one is disputing that the interventions introduced by M&S are having a significant beneficial effect. I await future results in warmer weather with interest but find those published so far to be reassuring.

It should be remembered that the original FSA sample sizes varied substantially from one retailer to another – M&S 68, Tesco 607 for example. It would be interesting if a statistian had put confidence limits on the results – at that time M&S had themselves had tested a much larger sample of chickens routinely with better results than the FSA’s. Here though M&S have tested 336 samples.

M&S claim that no other retailer is implementing a holistic programme of this type on a commercial scale. If true, that is worrying.

Meanwhile we will continue to buy M&S chicken and cook it properly. We have an Oakham Rotisserie one in the fridge – double bagged, reared by W.Gamble in Co.Down (anyone know him?). Good value in their Meal Deal.

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It is obviously beneficial for retailers to commission their own testing but I would be surprised and disappointed if the FSA published any results other than those from independent testing. I would not trust Which? if their washing machine tests were commissioned by manufacturers or retailers.

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I am less sceptical, having worked in industry, of the duplicity of manufacturers. They use, normally, accredited laboratories for testing – we used ones that had UKAS acrreditation for example. These laboratories value their independence and status and would not wish to prejudice that by distorting results. However I suggest Which? could ask M&S just how independent their test results are – from selecting samples to the testing regime and its rigour. Then we will have facts to discuss rather than conjecture. 🙂

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I’m not suggesting there is any fowl play Malcolm. For all we know, BRI Camden bought the M&S chicken in retail stores, just as you would do.

I am disappointed that FSA does not publish proper scientific reports of its testing of campylobacter in retail chicken. From those we could see, for example, the number of samples taken per bird, the number of replicate plate counts, and what controls were included.

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…fowl play..love it! I actually just chuckled to myself when reading that, wavechange. 😀

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Patrick started us off with the puns, Andrew. Look back at some of the excruciating puns in some of the early Convo titles and introductions.

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Haha, ah yes!

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I have mentioned the effect of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) on various occasions when we have been discussing food poisoning.

Stomach acid is one of our defences against harmful bacteria. A significant number of people take PPIs to suppress acid production, for a variety of reasons. Though the greater risk of infection is established, I doubt that most users of PPIs are aware that they may be more at risk of food poisoning. Here is a useful paper that Dieseltaylor kindly dug out for me: http://www.eurosurveillance.org/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=20873

It shows a very clear relationship between use of PPIs and incidence of campylobacter infection. This is much greater in the young, as Beryl has previously mentioned.

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I have stopped taking PPI’s since this subject was raised Wavechange. I have substituted them with a ginger nut biscuit which settles my stomach by stimulating the production of hydrochloric acid (which depletes with age) and gives me extra protection hopefully from campylobacter infection and I am happy to report it works a treat. Needless to say I always cook any chicken thoroughly as well using a meat thermometer. Definitely one of the positives to emerge for me from Which? Conversation.

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I’m glad to hear that you have restored your natural defences to bacteria, Beryl. 🙂 My interest in gastric acid stems from the unexpected discovery in the 1980s that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori was capable of surviving stomach acid and causing ulcers.

I wonder how many of those suffering from campylobacter infections are taking PPIs or earlier acid suppressants such as cimetidine and ranitidine.

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One of the dangers of campylobacter infection is the rare but well established complication, Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Here is a recent case:
http://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/dublin-woman-feared-death-when-she-was-left-paralysed-after-eating-infected-irish-chicken-31040409.html

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As a producer rather than retailer, Bernard Matthews escaped attention in the Food Standards Agency’s report on retailers. Nevertheless it will be using rapid surface chilling to decrease contamination of poultry:

http://www.foodmanufacture.co.uk/Food-Safety/Warm-weather-set-to-heat-up-Campylobacter-debate

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Here is an insight into the campylobacter problem as seen by the food industry: http://www.foodmanufacture.co.uk/Food-Safety/Supermarket-war-diverts-attention-from-campylobacter

I find the video very depressing, since it makes no mention of cleaning up the growing and processing industries, where the campylobacter problem arises.

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The FSA has published the results for a full year. However I cannot see this broken down quarter by quarter to see if there are any trends in the different supermarkets. If action plans have been successfully implemented you would expect to see a downward trend so a years average is not all that helpful. If I’ve missed it perhaps someone could point the way.

M&S’s own website do publish results by month which, on the face of it, is more useful and shows improvement. However campylobacter is likely to be less in cold weather and higher in summer so I hope the FSA carry on testing to get a handle on this.

I am still disappointed that the chicken processors aren’t tested as well as the retailers. Many of the improvements and processing precautions are in their hands. They need strict and regular inspections – either by FSA and/or the retailers – to ensure good practice is maintained.

I did enjoy a nice roast chicken, chips peas and carrots last night and am pleased to still be with you.

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On the other hand, every one of the supermarkets tested has failed to meet the target set by the Food Standards Agency for reducing campylobacter contamination. To quote from a BBC article published today: “Richard Lloyd, the executive director of consumer group Which?, said: “It beggars belief that nearly three-quarters of chickens on sale in supermarkets are still infected with this potentially deadly bug and that no retailers have met the FSA’s target.”

If we are going to single out one supermarket it should not be M&S but Tesco, which has continued to produce the lowest figures for high level contamination.

I very much agree that we should be looking at the processors because it is their high speed processing that seems to be spreading contamination. There is also scope for improvement at the farming stage. Simply giving these poor animals uncontaminated water to drink can help control the campylobacter problem.

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This is an average over a year apparently, so does not seem to look at whether recent action plans have had any effect. If you look at M&S website their recent figures indicate they achieve half the FSA target. However we have had cold months that will no doubt reduce campylobacter naturally.
I have asked FSA whether they have data by supermarket by quarter, how winter affects data, whether they are going to continue sampling and whether they will sample and inspect the processors.

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Although the FSA has not published campylobacter figures for Aldi, being one of the smaller supermarkets, it has announced that it is taking similar measures to the others to tackle the problem: https://corporate.aldi.co.uk/en/responsibility/consumers/our-action-on-campylobacter/

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The Food Standards Agency has published the first results for the second year of tests on supermarket chicken: https://www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2015/14701/campylobacter-survey

The most important figure is “% skin samples over 1000 cfu/g campylobacter”, which gives an indication of heavy contamination. Waitrose and the Co-op have made significant progress.

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I posted a link to the the Food Standards Agency’s most recent tests on campylobacter in supermarket chicken, but it hasn’t been approved yet. The press is picking up the story. Search for: “Fewer supermarket chickens have high levels of campylobacter bug”

Maybe Which? will launch a new Conversation to help raise awareness of the continuing threat that campylobacter poses to the nation’s health.

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The latest informationposted by the FSA can be found on their website food.gov.uk and their first qtr report at food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/campylobacter-retail-survey-jul-sept-2015.pdf

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I wrote to the FSA last year, criticising the presentation of information to the general public. Figure 2 allows the public to compare the performance of the retailers without getting bogged down in tables of numbers, cfu/g and confidence intervals.

Which has also done a short press release.

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Gil Domingue says:
9 December 2015

I don’t think “safe” chicken however defined, would have resulted if industry had been pressured. The first intervention was always a cost-effective vaccine for poultry along the lines of the salmonella vaccines for poultry. When these latter were introduced in the late 90’s poultry-associated salmonellosis FP plummeted. It is a governmental (past & present administrations) responsibility to fund rapid research into a cost-effective campylo vaccine. The dominant campylo types associated with FP are in the PHE databases and this could be where to start the work.

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The options are to vaccinate the chickens or to vaccinate the humans that eat them. I understand that a human vaccine is undergoing tests. I do hope that the poultry industry can get to grips with the problem, making a vaccine unnecessary.

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