FSA campylobacter results make grim reading

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Campylobacter breeds on raw chicken and is destroyed by cooking
Campylobacter breeds on raw chicken and is destroyed by cooking

Related tags Fsa board Somerfield Fsa

Tests show campylobacter contamination increased substantially over the summer in shop-bought raw chicken and the food industry must do more to tackle the problem, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Revealing the much-anticipated results of the first half of its year-long testing programme, which began in February, the FSA said an average of 70% of samples had shown some level of contamination.

An average of eight out of 10 samples had tested positive in second quarter figures, after tests for the first quarter had shown an average of 59% of samples were tainted.

Contamination levels had been expected to be higher for the second set of data, as previous data has shown that warm weather encourages the bug, which is the commonest source of UK food poisoning, to grow.

The FSA board decided not to break down the results for the second quarter alone by retailer, because the data was not deemed to have been robust enough.

Denied pressure

Steve Wearne, FSA director of food policy, denied retailers or government ministers had pressured the organisation into withholding the data.

“The FSA board agreed that it doesn’t provide us with sufficient samples to allow us to draw any conclusions,​he said. ​We have not come under pressure this time.

However, in a report to the FSA board aired during its meeting on November 5, FSA ceo Catherine Brown responded to a letter from trade body the British Retail Consortium (BRC)​ enquiring about its plans, saying: “It is disappointing that the BRC … has written to us again pressing us not to reveal the results of the retail survey and seeking to call into question the validity of the sampling plan, which they were consulted about before the survey commenced.”

For its part, the BRC said it had written to the FSA merely to confirm “that there was evidence behind the survey results which would give consumers clear information”.

The FSA did publish test results from the top seven retailers covering the six month period. Tesco emerged the best among the major supermarkets, with 64% of samples testing positive for some level of contamination.

Asda was worst hit by the figures, with a 78% contamination level. It also had the highest score out of all the retailers for the number of skin samples showing high levels of contamination (above 1,000 colony forming units/gramme of the bug).

‘Name and shame’ table’

Other retailers, including Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and independent stores together had contamination levels of greater than 76%. The Co-op Group came third, with 73%, in what some retailers have criticised as the ‘name and shame’ table.

Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury and Waitrose all delivered contamination levels of 67–69%.

Consumer group Which? said retailers should “hang their heads in shame​at the figures.

Wearne said no retailer was close to meeting the food industry target of just 10% of raw chicken samples with high levels of contamination by the end of 2015.

However, he was keen to stress retailers and processors were working on a range of methods to stamp out the pathogen. He said a multi-stage approach, at farm-level, processing-level and retail-level, was the best one to take.

Marks & Spencer and its supplier, 2 Sisters Food Group, had developed a five-point plan, an integrated programme of interventions across the food chain, for example, the FSA said.

Steam technology

In addition, Asda and its supplier Faccenda has committed to an innovative steam technology, SonoSteam, to kill the bug. Moy Park is implanting high levels of on-farm biosecurity. And several retailers have introduced ‘roast in the bag’ chickens to limit cross-contamination by minimising consumers’ handling of raw chicken at home.

“These results show that the food industry, especially retailers, need to do more to reduce the amount of campylobacter on fresh chickens,”​ said Wearne.

​Although we are half-way through the survey, 18% of birds tested had campylobacter over 1,000 colony forming units/gramme, the highest level of contamination, and more than 70% of birds had some campylobacter on them.

​This shows there is a long way to go before consumers are protected from this bug.

According to the FSA, campylobacter makes 280,000 people ill in the UK each year.

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