Campylobacter results ‘disappointing’, with no progress on targets

By Rod Addy contact

- Last updated on GMT

Most cases of campylobacteriosis in humans have been linked to raw poultry meat
Most cases of campylobacteriosis in humans have been linked to raw poultry meat

Related tags: Food standards agency, Food safety

A Food Standards Agency (FSA) report has branded the failure to meet targets for tackling campylobacter “disappointing”, claiming fatalistic industry views are hampering progress and must change.

According a report issued last Friday​ (August 30) by Steve Wearne, FSA food safety director, the campylobacter Joint Working Group (JWG) had made no progress on tackling the pathogen, as originally revealed​ by FoodManufacture.co.uk in July.

The JWG, comprising government and industry representatives, aimed to cut the amount of UK-produced raw chicken with the highest campylobacter contamination levels (more than 1,000 colony forming units/gramme) from 27% to 10% by 2015.

However, the report​ claims that, despite the FSA committing £5.1M of cash into researching the problem, the percentage has actually risen slightly to 30%.

“Although a considerable amount of effort and expenditure has been put to taking the Joint Action Plan forward, the lack of concrete progress is disappointing,”​ it states.

It claims a fatalistic attitude on the part of industry was a big obstacle to progress. “There is presently an acceptance in the industry that in the absence of a ‘silver bullet’ a high level of contamination will inevitably occur, and a sense of powerlessness in addressing the issue.

‘Cost impact’

“Where businesses do identify changes to practice that could reduce campylobacter there is sometimes an assumption that the cost impact or issues with consumer acceptability (e.g. antimicrobial washes) make the changes unfeasible.”

Much of the reduction in campylobacter contamination predicted by 2013 was expected to result from the introduction of a new on-farm biosecurity standard, as part of the Red Tractor Assurance Reduction scheme.

However, results from research and trials suggested the new requirements had not been applied by producers with sufficient consistency to be effective, the report​ claimed.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) responded to the report: “We share the concern of the FSA about the issue of campylobacter reduction and the industry fully recognizes its responsibility to deliver safe food to consumers.

"We have worked with the FSA, DEFRA ​[Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], BRC ​[British Retail Consortium] and the NFU ​[National Farmers Union] since 2009 through the JWG on a reduction plan and the partnership approach of the JWG has been very successful in driving industry wide efforts.

'More work required'

“Over 70 projects and scientific research in several areas have been trialled, including further on-farm biosecurity measures and specific slaughterhouse interventions. While much new information has been obtained through these projects, more work is required to find a consistent means of reduction.

"Overall, our knowledge of campylobacter has greatly increased and there are promising signs that certain actions across the poultry supply chain will contribute to meaningful reductions.

Wearne's report proposes to maintain current targets, redoubling efforts through measures such as improving the amount and quality of information about campylobacter to industry and addressing legal barriers to technological weapons targeting it.

One such technology is a ‘rapid surface chilling’ process which exposes processed carcasses to extremely cold gases for a short period of time. Trials at close to production scale are expected to begin shortly and, if successful the process could be available for commercial installation from 2014.

In addition, the report​ proposes work with local government and others to raise awareness of campylobacter and increased support of research into vaccinations and long-term interventions.

Improving washing processes

The JWG is also exploring offering financial incentives to growers for producing campylobacter-free flocks and improving washing processes in slaughter houses.

Driving changes in behaviour and approach using tools including regulation, if appropriate, is a final proposal.

According to the latest research, cited in the report​, contaminated poultry was the most significant source of campylobacter with respect to human health, responsible for 50-80% of campylobacteriosis cases. Of these, the majority were linked to raw poultry meat.

A 2007-2008 FSA survey indicated 65% of chicken on sale in retailers was contaminated with campylobacter.

The cost of treating human infections caused by campylobacter in the UK was £900M out of a total of £1.5bn for all foodborne infections.

Wearne’s report​ is tabled for discussion at the next FSA board meeting on September 11.

Food safety will be the focus of Food Manufacture's​ Food Safety conference to be staged at the National Motorcycle Museum, near Birmingham on Thursday October 17. Chaired by Professor Colin Dennis, the conference will arm delegates with the latest advice to protect their food and drink businesses from a food safety challenge.

Conference details and booking facility are available here​.

Related topics: Food Safety, Meat, poultry & seafood

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