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Q&A: the FSA answers questions about Campylobacter in chicken

Roosters

Malcolm R, one of our top community members, recently asked the Food Standards Agency about its tests of Campylobacter in chicken. Here are the answers he received in full.

Reduced contamination targets

Malcolm R asks: Can you tell me why you are confident that a reduction in Campylobacter contamination in supermarket chicken from 23% to 10% will be achieved in 2016?

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) answers: While the target was not fully achieved across the whole of the industry by the end of 2015, the FSA is encouraged by the recent significant improvements in Campylobacter levels and has agreed to roll the target forward to the end of December 2016.

With the amount of work and commitment being done by industry and government to reduce the levels of campylobacter in chickens, and the recent encouraging sampling results, we would expect the target to be met in the near future. Particularly the retail survey results, demonstrate already the real progress being made by the industry.

There is a growing list of interventions that have been developed and then implemented at scale, in different combinations, by different supply chains from farm to retail. These are having a demonstrable impact on the levels of contamination we are finding in the retail survey.

In each of the last two quarters’ data we have published, covering chicken on retail sale between July and December 2015, the proportion of chickens that were most highly contaminated were around two-thirds of the equivalent figures for the same periods in 2014. This represents significant progress, and although it confirms that the target was not met at the end of 2015, our knowledge of the further interventions that are currently being implemented at scale on farm and by processors gives us renewed confidence that this target is now within reach.

Slaughter house interventions

Malcolm asks: Can you also say why all slaughter houses have not implemented those interventions shown to be effective?

The FSA answers: Interventions have to be trialled at real slaughter line speeds and over a sufficient period of time to ensure that they are both practical and effective and this requires a significant amount of time. Only once these criteria are fulfilled and an intervention has been shown to have a sufficient impact on Campylobacter reduction (and not all pass the necessary criteria), can a processor consider installing it on other processing lines within their plants. We expect more slaughterhouses to install innovative technologies in the future as trials are completed.

Campylobacter can be found virtually everywhere within the environment and many different interventions are required. Not all solutions will be appropriate in all circumstances. The results of our survey help to focus the efforts of retailers and processors in finding suitable solutions within their production and supply chain to reduce Campylobacter levels.

Why focus on retailers?

Malcolm asks: It does seem to me that checking contamination, and interventions, at the farm and at the processors is even more valuable than checking the retailers. After all, the retailers essentially take a product that has been prepared by a processor so unless the latter are diligent, the retailer will suffer. Does the FSA check contamination at processors and are these figures going to be published alongside the retailers?

The FSA answers: The FSA established a programme of monitoring campylobacter contamination levels from March 2012. Samples are taken from chickens at the end of processing (post-chill) in 19 specified UK slaughterhouses and tested to determine the level of Campylobacter present on the skin. Results are classified into three bands of contamination, which correspond to less than 100 colony forming units/gram (cfu/g), between 100 and 1,000 cfu/g and more than 1,000 cfu/g (results of which were summarised in the 4th ACT e-newsletter).

In terms of our retail survey, the retailers are responsible for the products they sell. It is up to the retailers to ensure that the processors are producing chickens of the appropriate quality. Nevertheless, we are working with the whole industry, from farmers to retailers, to encourage them to introduce interventions that will help reduce levels of Campylobacter on chickens.

Our retail survey was specifically designed to sample from the main retailers and an ‘Other’ group (made up of smaller retailers and individual shops) and was not designed to match processor market share.

We have sufficient sample numbers to attribute results to the key nine retailers, but for the processors, sample sizes are not representative of their output. Additionally, our survey is aimed at informing consumer choice and consumers will choose on the basis of a retailer, not the processor. Therefore within our retail survey it would not be appropriate to name processors. However, similar to the Year 1 final report, the final Excel sampling sheet of Year 2 will contain each sample’s processor approval number.

What do you think about the answers Malcolm got from the FSA? Do you have any thoughts about Campylobacter contamination in chicken?

Comments

I agree with Malcolm that more needs to be done at source.

The attitude seems to be how do we make a bad product good not how do we ensure a good product in the first place.

Quote: Campylobacter can be found virtually everywhere within the environment
If that was true, wouldn’t we all have permanent food poisoning?

OK, I know there are different strains, but that is a bit of a cop-out statement.

Eggs are supposedly free from Campylobacter. When are they going to run a trial raising chickens from eggs on a clean property, rotating their grazing, then test their Campylobacter levels?

Could it prove that chickens living in their own faeces is contributing to the high levels currently seen? Would the way chickens are raised have to be changed significantly?

We have had to take steps with plastic as fish digest it from the polluted seas. Do we need to do the same with chickens if they are contributing to Campylobacter spreading in the environment?

PS
Good convo Malcolm.

“Campylobacter can be found virtually everywhere within the environment….
If that was true, wouldn’t we all have permanent food poisoning?”

The fact that campylobacter is found in our environment is a point regularly made by the poultry industry. I think you are right that it is being used as a cop-out statement but do not know if moving to less intensive farming would result in a significant reduction in campylobacter contamination of carcasses.

The number of bacteria we have to ingest to develop an infection (the so-called ‘infective dose’) varies according to the organism and the individual. The figure commonly quoted for the main campylobacter species that commonly cause food poisoning is often quoted as 500 bacteria, though infective dose is a very crude measure of how infective an organism is. Chickens can carry large numbers of campylobacter in their intestines without showing any symptoms, in the same way that humans carry large numbers of bacteria. I don’t know to what extent living in their own faeces affects the percentage of birds that are carries of campylobacter or whether this has been studied.

Thanks Malcolm and Which? for keeping the topic in the public eye. I feel that the poultry industry should be looking hard at the suppliers of their chicken and funding research. We need the industry working together to tackle the problem.

Smike says:
25 March 2016

It is clear that the FSA needs to monitor ALL slaughterhouses on an ongoing basis to achieve the results that the Agency is tasked with. It should also be much less resource consuming than monitoring Retail outlets