/ 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?.


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?

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In the US, the campylobacter problem is controlled by treatment of chicken carcasses with bleach, though I have no idea of which states permit this treatment. Bleach will kill bacteria on the surface, present as a result of inadequate washing to remove faecal contamination during processing. A Walmart chicken sold in the States could be safer than a chicken sold in Asda, which is owned by Walmart.

I do not know about the safety of treating chicken with bleach, though it will affect quality and appearance. Germany, in particular is strongly opposed to use of bleach on chicken: http://www.beuc.eu/blog/what-is-wrong-with-chlorinated-chicken/ I would like to see less intensive farming and processing of chicken and I hope that industry does not force bleached chicken on us.

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Farm animals are not treated well, but chickens seem to have the worst deal.

Unfortunately the news that all the supermarkets were selling chicken that is contaminated with campylobacter did not impact on sales as much as I had hoped. In fact the ensuing price cuts may have made the situation worse: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/11355289/Chicken-wars-which-supermarkets-are-selling-bargain-birds.html

Duncan – It’s some time since I last saw inside a battery house. It was for egg-laying hens, not broiler chickens bred for meat, but the hens were not standing in their own excrement. The cages were made of wire mesh on all sides including the floor, which meant that the birds had nothing solid to stand on and their clawed feet had to rest on the mesh. Underneath the floor was a sloping metal tray that collected the droppings. This was scraped periodically. Eggs rolled forward into a channel. Food and water were provided in a tray at the front of the cage. In my view it is a most unpleasant form of animal husbandry. Although for home consumption sales of eggs from battery-caged hens have been overtaken by sales of barn eggs or free-range eggs, eggs produced for commmercial use in manufacturing are probably still largely derived from battery conditions.

When it comes to broiler chickens, which is what this Conversatiion is about, I think battery-rearing is unusual. The process is nevertheless extremely intensive with very large numbers of birds, of both sexes, raised in large sheds to the age of five to seven weeks before slaughter. Due to the intensive conditions and rapid-growth objective of their husbandry, the birds are susceptible to many serious welfare concerns and distressing medical conditions that will not get treated before slaughter. The stocking density can be unbelievably high and the heat and general atmosphere border on the intolerable. Faecal contamination is prevalent in this kind of environment where the floor [covered in ‘deep litter’ – typically wood-shavings and sawdust] does get impacted with excrement.

So if we think battery egg production is bad [and it is], then the mass-production of immature chickens for the table is a whole lot worse.

Needless to say I don’t eat chicken although I do enjoy free-range eggs and couldn’t give them up. I hope I haven’t spoiled anyone’s breakfast or knocked out their appetite for lunch.

My main reason for stopping buying any chicken is a protest against the retailers and supply chain for supplying meat that is so heavily contaminated that I don’t believe it is fit for sale. Campylobacter contamination has increased significantly and rather than tackling the problem over the past decade, little has been done and now we have been told not to wash chicken.

What John has said is more or less my understanding of the legal cruelty that goes on in the poultry industry. I only buy free-range eggs.

Although we don’t eat chicken, I do keep a beady eye on the chicken meat products available in supermarkets. It’s obviously an extremely popular food source and it is presented to look very appealing, especially in the cooked form sold either for eating cold or reheating. Much of this is targetted at the barbecue culture. I hope it is right to presume that all this food has already been properly tested and prepared, cooked and then chilled correctly, and packaged, stored and transported safely. These activities are a further stage beyond the production of uncooked chicken for roasting at home and so far as I can see it does not appear that they give rise to any serious hygiene concerns.

Chicken is considered to be a cheaper meat but in it’s cooked form as sold by supermarkets it certainly is not.

The FSA newsletter today increases my confidence by declaring the ” The project commenced in September 2015.” See below

In all though the Department shows a transparency so often lacking in many organisations. The Board has announced “The agenda and papers for the next open Board meeting have been published. The meeting will be held in London on Wednesday 3 June 2015. It will begin at 9am and will be chaired by FSA Chair Tim Bennett. You can attend in person or watch it live online.”

Anyway those who are not signed up this is what is being said in the newsletter:

Tackling campylobacter, from farm to fork
Welcome to the 2nd edition of the ACT electronic newsletter, a regular bulletin bringing together information on the government and industry-wide campaign to tackle campylobacter from farm to fork.

Tackling campylobacter is the Food Standards Agency’s top priority. We have set a clear expectation that poultry producers, processors and retailers take action to reduce levels of campylobacter in chicken. We plan to capture some of these projects in our e-newsletters so make sure you don’t miss any.
Campylobacter Abattoir Campaign

The Campylobacter Abattoir Campaign continues to gain momentum with evidence that an increasing number of food business operators are getting behind activities to reduce contamination levels in plants.

FSA Campylobacter Leads report that the phased activity to influence changes in production practices have resulted in many poultry plants introducing tests on equipment and on processed birds to check campylobacter levels.
NFU logo
Investigating bird colonisation status at slaughter

The National Farmers Union is investigating if on-farm growing practices have an impact on bird colonisation status at slaughter under the auspices of project FS 101123 funded by the Food Standards Agency. The project commenced in September 2015. The general approach taken by the study is to test the campylobacter status of birds on farm prior to harvest. At the same time, farmers answer questions that describe the production conditions and agricultural practices used to grow the birds.
FSA visit broiler farm
FSA visit to broiler chicken farms

Several members of the Food Safety Policy Division recently visited a number of broiler chicken farms to see how they are run and to observe the biosecurity measures used to minimise campylobacter contamination.
A potential silver bullet!

BOC Linde Gases and Bernard Matthews have developed and trialled the ‘Rapid Surface Chilling’ technology that kills off up to 95% of all skin and membrane Campylobacter contamination. Most of this arises from the use of high speed automatic evisceration equipment, where faecal contamination occurs from vent drill and evisceration spoon functions.
Developments at 2 Sisters Food Group

2 Sisters Food Group is now half way through it no thin and farmer incentive studies. The data collected so far on the no thinning study looks encouraging, however no definitive conclusions will be drawn until the study is completed in November 2015 and a full analysis of the complete results is undertaken.
Retail survey on levels of campylobacter on chicken

The 12-month survey, running from February 2014 to February 2015, is looking at the prevalence and levels of campylobacter contamination on fresh whole chilled chickens and their packaging. The survey will test 4,000 samples of whole chickens bought from UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers. The full set will be published on 28 May 2015.

The date has been corrected to September 2014.

From above: “Most of this [campylobacter contamination] arises from the use of high speed automatic evisceration equipment, where faecal contamination occurs from vent drill and evisceration spoon functions.”

I wonder how many people buying chickens are aware that they are likely to be have a dressing of faeces thanks to the high speed processing of carcasses. I wonder if it adds to the flavour. 🙁

I had hoped that a retailer would have had the courage to stop selling chicken until the industry had cleaned up its act, but no such luck.

Gil Domingue says:
9 December 2015

FSA & DEFRA need to fast track development of a cost-effective vaccine against campylobacter. Hopefully this would result in a major reduction in FP cases as happened once the salmonella vaccine became available in th elate 90’s