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expert reaction to the publishing of the Food Standards Agency’s retail survey on levels of Campylobacter on chicken

The Food Standards Agency has released figures on the levels of Campylobacter present on supermarket poultry. Campylobacter is the most common form of food poisoning in the UK.


Dr Arnoud van Vliet, Campylobacter group research leader, Institute of Food Research, said:

“It is clear from these figures that the levels of Campylobacter are still unacceptably high, across all of the major supermarkets, as well as other retailers. So it now does need all of the retailers and producers, large and small, to act together and reduce the amount of Campylobacter in the birds, in processing, and on the supermarket shelves. A number of retailers and producers are already starting to implement measures, but we do need to be sure that these cover the whole of the production chain, are robust and economically viable. Consumers will always need to play their part with good kitchen hygiene, as we unlikely to be able to totally remove Campylobacter.

“The bacterium itself can be killed by heat and by freezing, so proper cooking and freezing after purchase will reduce the danger of it causing food poisoning. But Campylobacter is also clever at transmitting itself, which is why consumers shouldn’t wash birds, as this only spreads the bacteria to other surfaces. This also means we need to consider the basic biology of the bacteria when devising and implementing biosecurity and hygiene practices to ensure that they are effective and thorough.”


Nigel Horrox, poultry veterinarian and Vice President of WVPA (World Veterinary Poultry Association), said:

“Currently there is no ‘wonder cure’ for campylobacter in poultry – if there was it would have been used and these results would have been very different. Various strategies can be used on farm to counter Campylobacter Spp., but these currently only chip away at the edge of this problem. The British poultry industry is doing various things to counter Campylobacter Spp. but, in reality, it is waiting for a breakthrough in campylobacter control from the research community. When such a breakthrough comes and is proven to work in the field, it will be quicky adopted by poultry farmers and/or processors who want to do everything possible to enhance the quailty of the products they produce.”


Dr Anthony Hilton, Reader in Microbiology, and Head of Biological & Biomedical Science, Aston University, said:

“This report highlights there is still much that remains to be done by the food industry to control the levels of Campylobacter in chicken.  It also raises awareness amongst consumers that no matter where the chicken is purchased there is a significant risk of it being contaminated with Campylobacter. The importance for consumers to handle, store and cook their chicken properly to ensure its safety cannot be understated.

“In my experience consumers are much more likely to be aware of the potential contamination of chicken by Salmonella, which is far less likely to be present than Campylobacter. There is obviously a huge disconnect between consumers’ awareness of the real and perceived risks of infection due to the consumption of undercooked chicken and this important report goes a long way to informing the public of the current risks.”


Prof. Mark Stevens, Chair of Microbial Pathogenesis, The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The data support earlier surveys at national and European levels and stress that raw poultry meat, irrespective of where it is sold, carries a significant risk of Campylobacter contamination. Further research to define risk factors for incursion of Campylobacter during poultry production and to prevent or treat such contamination is needed. History records that improved biosecurity and vaccination can reduce the threat to public health of bacteria found in poultry, such as Salmonella. Concerted action throughout the food chain is required and consumers can do much to protect themselves from the risk of infection.”


Prof. Brendan Wren, Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and Dean of Faculty of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:

“This study confirms what we have suspected that most of our retail chicken are contaminated with Campylobacter, a nasty pathogen that can cause severe diarrhoea and other complications. Frankly it is scandalous that 2 out of 3 chickens bought into our households are contaminated with such a serious pathogen, I can’t think of any other situation where this would be allowed. It no use blaming the consumer for poor hygiene, the problem has to be stopped at source. Our poultry flocks need to be vaccinated against Campylobacter, even if this slightly increases the cost of poultry products.”


Dr Andreas Karatzas, Lecturer in Food Microbiology, University of Reading, said:

“Campylobacter is a fragile little bacteria, making it relatively easy to combat. Soap kills it. Heat will kill it. So will sub-zero temperatures, oxygen, acid, chlorine, pressure, sunlight, or pretty much anything else you can throw at it. It can make you very ill, and is therefore dangerous to those susceptible to dehydration, but it is not as bad as some other infections with much higher fatality rates.

“Its strength comes in numbers. Campylobacter lives in the guts of live chickens, without harming the animal at all, and is spread in their faeces. Chickens don’t have to have it though, and incidence rates in farmed chickens varies widely across Europe. 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.

“Human infection rates also vary widely across Europe, and not necessarily in line with rates of prevalence among the chickens. There are various factors that affect this outcome as well, including hygienic practices at home. In Ireland, more than four-fifths of chickens carry the bacteria, a higher rate than in the UK. Yet cases among Irish people occur less than half as often as in the UK, suggesting something else is influencing human infection rates – but we don’t yet know what this is. Finding out is key to making improvements.

“Overall, the UK has the second-highest rate of campylobacter-caused food poisoning in Europe. Only the Czech Republic has a worse record.

“At home, people should take heed to sensible advice such as not washing raw chicken, keeping it away from other food in the fridge, and taking care to wash hands, utensils and surfaces after touching raw meat. If you’re careful, raw chicken should be perfectly safe. It has been suggested by some scientists to buy frozen chicken, which carries less risk of cross-contamination, but special care then needs to be taken when storing it in the freezer, defrosting and cooking.”


Prof. Sam Sheppard, Professor of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Swansea University, said:

“Campylobacter found in farm animals and human infection are extremely diverse. For example, C. coli and C. jejuni are as genetically different from one another as a human and a marmoset. This is associated with differences in traits such as survival and virulence. Therefore, it is important to check that measures to reduce contamination target all strains and not just those that are easily eliminated.”


Prof. Christine Dodd, President of the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM), said:

“This is not a new problem, and the short term solution remains for us all to ensure that we store, prepare and cook chicken properly.

“Research continues into the best ways to reduce campylobacter contamination in our poultry products, right along the food chain, from field to fork. In the meantime, taking some simple steps at home will prevent many cases of food poisoning from chicken.

“Cross contamination from raw chicken to products that won’t later be cooked thoroughly is potentially hazardous. Eating undercooked chicken meat or offal is a leading cause of food poisoning, too. Raw meat should always be stored below five degrees centigrade, in a sealed package, placed towards the bottom of the fridge where it cannot leak or drip on other products. And we should never, ever, wash chicken under the tap before cooking it – this will spray bacteria all over the place!”


Prof. Chris Elliott, Chair of Food Safety, Queen’s University Belfast, said:

“Campylobacter is a complex problem to get to grips with, not only in the UK but worldwide. The Food Standards Agency have very correctly identified this as a important issue for them and the UK food industry to work on in a collaborative manner. I’m not aware of any region in the world working harder to find solutions to this problem but in my opinion, having looked at all the evidence, there is no ‘quick fix’. Improved interventions at the farm level, food processing and packaging, food service and at retail will all be required to really get to grips with significantly reducing the level of contamination and reducing associated human illness. I fully support the approach being taken by the Joint Working Group on Campylobacter in trialling a wide-range of measures to determine which combination will have the maximum impact. I also believe education has a major role to play. We need to improve the amount of teaching children (and in many cases adults) get in terms of storing, preparing and cooking food.

“In terms of the much broader issues of food security and healthy diets, poultry is an extremely important food source. In the UK we are only about 66% self-sufficient in the amount of poultry meat we produce and it is an industry that needs to be expanded. I firmly believe collectively we will get on top of the Campylobacter issue but this will only be achieved by all stakeholders, including us as consumers, playing important roles.”


Declared interests

None declared

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