/ Food & Drink

Making chicken safe – what needs to be done

Which? Chicken Mascot

In this guest post, Catherine Brown, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, looks at what you, and the food industry, can do to keep your family safe from Campylobacter on raw poultry.

Here at the Food Standards Agency we’re launching the Chicken Challenge – a call for consumers to remember the little things they should do to keep their family safe from Campylobacter on raw poultry. People will always need to take care when handling and cooking raw chicken, and a ‘challenge’ is a neat way to get us all to remember.

But the real challenge we’re posing is to the poultry industry.

More Campylobacter cases in summer

Cases of Campylobacter food poisoning increase in warmer weather, roughly from this month to September. And we’re not just talking about a dodgy tummy – it’s painful and can lead to serious long-term health problems, even death.

We want to cut the number of cases of foodborne Campylobacteriosis in half by the end of 2015 and then keep going until Campylobacter in chicken has no real effect on human health.

While we want the public to adopt safe cooking practices, it’s the industry that profits from selling chicken and it should ensure they’re safe to eat, which is why we welcome the Which? campaign for Safe Chicken.

The industry has agreed with us to reduce levels of Campylobacter on chickens at the end of the factory process by the end of 2015. This alone would give the 50% reduction we’re all looking for.

FSA tests for Campylobacter in chickens

At the end of this month, we’ll publish the latest results of our tests to establish contamination levels. We’ve been testing thousands of chickens and publishing the results every quarter. Work will continue into 2016.

In our most recent test, 19% of chickens tested positive for Campylobacter within the very highest level of contamination. The target is to reduce that to less than 10% by the end of the year.

Supermarkets have just six months to meet their targets

So far, M&S is the only retailer to publish what it has done to reduce Campylobacter on its chickens. The first data, in February showed a very significant fall in number of the most highly contaminated birds.

This shows it’s possible to achieve the target. So, I’m reminding UK retailers, producers and farmers they have six months left to meet their commitment to reduce the numbers of the most highly contaminated chickens sold in the UK, and halve the number of people who get ill as a result.

If everyone lives up to their promises, this can happen.

We’re suggesting that next time you buy a chicken, ask your supermarket or butcher what they’re doing to reduce Campylobacter. Let us know what answer you get.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Catherine Brown, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency. All opinions expressed here are Catherine’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.

Comments
Member

I’m reassured as we buy all our chicken at M&S. I doubt your local store or butcher will know how to answer your question. It is their suppliers who need to be asked. So look on their – if you know the supplier – or the supermarkets’ websites.

I hope the FSA will extend their monitoring to all the major suppliers as well as the retailers. Then we can see just what is going on.

Can you trust your local small shop?

Member

Most of the chicken sold in supermarkets is processed by two companies – 2 Sisters Food Group and Faccenda: http://www.2sfg.com http://www.faccendafoods.co.uk

There is not a great deal of information about campylobacter on their websites:
http://www.2sfg.com/about-us/how-we-work/campylobacter/
http://www.faccendafoods.co.uk/faccenda-foods-statement-on-campylobacter/

The innovations mentioned in the Marks & Spencer five point plan look similar to what 2 Sisters is doing anyway, presumably for all the companies it supplies.

Some of the problems in the poultry industry are apparent from undercover filming for the Guardian, published last July: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/23/-sp-revealed-dirty-secret-uk-poultry-industry-chicken-campylobacter

I have been following news about campylobacter since the Food Standards Agency published its results during November. I have seen little to give me hope that the problem is tackled at the farming stage when flocks become infected and processing when even unaffected birds can become contaminated with campylobacter present in faeces. I believe that the problems arise from intensive farming and processing.

The FSA urges us not to wash chicken carcasses and several retailers supply birds bagged and ready to put in the oven. Don’t worry if it might not have been washed properly during the high speed processing. What about the chicken legs, breasts, pieces, etc that account for most of the chicken sold in supermarkets and elsewhere?

Most of us will have learned that meat should be properly cooked before eating. Cross-contamination of cooked food or foods (such as salad) that are not cooked is a significant risk, so it’s no good thinking that adequate cooking is the answer. We can be careful in our own homes but what about when we eat out?

The campylobacter problem is not new. We now have a better idea of the annual number of cases, but I wonder how many minor bouts of food poisoning go unreported.

As far as I am concerned, chicken can be turned into pet food because I am not going to buy it until I can be sure that the industry has cleaned up its act and the dangers are no greater than with any meat. I have been wary of chicken and shellfish since the 70s.

Member

wavechange, if you look at the M&S website it says about their plan:
– They are giving incentives to their farmers to produce campylobacter-free farms
– they are trialling zero thinning
– they invested in new technology on a dedicated M&S processing line that rapidly chills whole chickens.

Precautions are not only required at the processor, but at the very start of the process with the farmers. So whilst other supermarkets may use the same processor this does not mean they take the same steps to control campylobacter.
The investment in and installation of a dedicated chill line at the processor also suggests this is down to M&S and not available to all.
So “The innovations mentioned in the Marks & Spencer five point plan look similar to what 2 Sisters is doing anyway, presumably for all the companies it supplies” may not be a correct conclusion – unless you have contrary information.

Member

My comment was guarded, Malcolm. Neither of us knows how much there is in common between the measures being taken by the processors on behalf of the different supermarkets. I merely commented on an obvious similarity.

I believe that the rapid surface chilling process was developed by collaboration between BOC and Bernard Matthews.

I am well aware that the campylobacter problem originates at the farming stage, which is why I referred to intensive farming.

Do you have any evidence that my observations are incorrect or unreasonable? I’m always happy to admit when I’m wrong.

Member

Good to hear some fighting talk.

Just as an exercise if you like in linguistics or comprehension I have to admit to being confused by this sentence as the logic seems faulty even if the intent is not. Or is it just me? : )

” So, I’m reminding UK retailers, producers and farmers they have six months left to meet their commitment to reduce the numbers of the most highly contaminated chickens sold in the UK, and halve the number of people who get ill as a result.”**

The implication seems to be that it is the most highly contaminated chickens are responsible for 50% of all cases. But the other statements do not say that.

” The industry has agreed with us to reduce levels of Campylobacter on chickens at the end of the factory process by the end of 2015. This alone would give the 50% reduction we’re all looking for”

“In our most recent test, 19% of chickens tested positive for Campylobacter within the very highest level of contamination. The target is to reduce that to less than 10% by the end of the year.”

** I am afraid we will have the Volvo car effect that the safer it gets the more people will become blase regarding precautions.

Member

One thing we can be sure about is that the most contaminated chicken poses the greatest risk. Our defences cope better against lower levels of contamination. The concept of ‘infective dose’ is well understood.

I wrote to the FSA about their presentation of the supermarket testing and I hope that the general public is not expected to understand scientific terms like “cfu/g” and “confidence interval” next time. I also hope that data for use by the public is presented graphically. Have a look at the Guardian article entitled ‘Dirty chicken scandal: food expert calls for boycott of chicken’, which shows an example of graphical presentation in which the highest contamination is highlighted and it is easy for the general public to understand. I appreciate that a more scientific version does have a place, but the public deserves something simpler.

The M&S results published earlier this year are very confusing, with numbers given but not explained. I mentioned this in the previous Conversation.

Member

True you did and it is a very valid point . There are some great infographics here – on Amazon and Walmart in the US which shows powerfully what can be achieved by good design.
ilsr.org/amazon-infographic/
ilsr.org/infographic-walmart-food/

Member

These are excellent examples of how to display information in a way that can easily be understood by the general public. Which? is generally good at presenting information in an appropriate manner, so I don’t understand why they simply reproduced the FSA’s table of numbers.

If I had still been teaching I would have used these examples.