Campylobacter is losing war, claim retailers

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Morrisons claims significant cuts in the amount of highly contaminated chickens
Morrisons claims significant cuts in the amount of highly contaminated chickens

Related tags Campylobacter Asda

Retailers are gaining ground on campylobacter according to results that update the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) latest data, the grocery industry has claimed.

FSA figures released today (May 28) indicate that no major retailer has met targets to cut the proportion of chickens contaminated with campylobacter at the highest levels to 10% or less.

According to the data covering February 2014 to February 2015, an average of 73% of chicken sampled tested positive for some level of contamination by the food poisoning bug. An average of 19.4% of samples showed high levels of contamination.

However, Morrisons announced its own January to April test results indicating that only 2.3% of whole chickens were in that highly contaminated group, versus 11.3% during the same period last year. The new figure, verified by the FSA, was significantly lower than its target, Morrisons stressed.


Steve Wearne, FSA director of policy, said: “This is very welcome news from Morrisons and goes to show that campylobacter levels on chicken can be significantly reduced by targeted interventions across the production process.”

The supermarket’s approach has included developing new standards on chicken slaughter and preparation, which is regularly checked and the introduction of roast-in-the-bag whole chickens.

Marks & Spencer claimed the latest results of its five point plan, implemented in conjunction with 2 Sisters Food Group and covering mid-November to April revealed dramatic improvements.

Just 7% of birds were currently testing positive for the highest levels of contamination – well below the FSA’s target – it said. 

A spokeswoman for Asda said 64% of whole birds were contaminated to some extent, below the industry average. And she said only 16% showed high levels of contamination (more than 1,000 colony forming units per gramme of the pathogen), again beating the industry average.

‘Good progress’

“We continue to take campylobacter very seriously and we are encouraged by our own most recent test data which confirms we’re making good progress to reaching the FSA’s target,”​ she said.

Asda has worked closely with chicken supplier Faccenda Foods to kill campylobacter using a mixture of ultrasound and steam technology, known as SonoSteam. Faccenda md Andy Dawkins outlined its progress on this area, including 80% reductions of campylobacter on chicken neck and breast skin in some trials, in an exclusive video​ earlier this month.

Waitrose said work with its dedicated fresh chicken supplier Moy Park had delivered trial results showing significant reductions in campylobacter contamination, using approaches including advanced testing and enhanced farm biosecurity.

The ‘farm to fork’ strategy had, by the end of March, slashed the proportion of fresh whole chickens contaminated at the highest levels by two thirds, well within the FSA’s target of 10%, Waitrose claimed.

Wearne said the agency was “encouraged”​ by the results. “Waitrose and Moy Park have pinpointed the solutions that will work for their supply chain and we look forward to seeing further progress from them and other retailers and processors over the coming months.”

Moy Park technical director Ursula Lavery said it had carried out more than 30 different supply chain initiatives and collaborated with experts across the globe, distilling that work down to seven core principles with commercial potential.

‘Challenging summer period’

“Our initial trial results are very promising and the next step is to replicate these reductions across the supply chain and in the more challenging summer period,”​ said Lavery, who said she was “optimistic”​ about developing these approaches.

The Co-operative Food, which is also tackling campylobacter at the farm level onwards, said its latest research indicated an 8-10% reduction in the highest rates of campylobacter on farms that had scrapped ‘thinning.’

Some now believe the practice, which involves removing groups of chickens from flocks, could help spread campylobacter. A wider trial from July 1 would involve about 15% of its supply chain abandoning thinning, with results monitored throughout the summer and reviewed to inform further progress, the society said.

In addition, the group said it would keep testing new technologies across its supplier sites, including double scalding and blast surface chilling, which subject chickens to extreme temperatures to reduce campylobacter. Campylobacter experts would also be introduced at each site.

Wearne said: “The Co-operative Food, and its supplier 2 Sisters Food Group, have identified the solutions that will work for their supply chain and we look forward to seeing further progress from them and other retailers and processors over the coming months.”

The group was the first retailer to implement leak-proof roast-in-the-bag packaging across its whole chicken range to prevent campylobacter contamination.

Leak-proof packaging

Sainsbury is also working to constantly improve leak-proof packaging and is collaborating with processors on measures such as rapid surface chilling.

“If our trials prove to be commercially effective, we will introduce it as a control at selected processing plants,”​ said Alec Kyriakides, the supermarket chain’s head of food safety.

Hot washing is another approach Sainsbury is testing. “We also know that campylobacter gradually declines in number after the chicken has been packed, so we are researching what is causing this effect with a view to harnessing it for the future,”​ added Kyriakides.

A spokeswoman for Tesco said: “Providing safe food is always our absolute priority. Tesco is committed to the reduction of campylobacter in poultry. It’s a complex industry wide problem that requires a multi-faceted approach.

“While there is no simple solution to prevent its presence in raw poultry we have and will continue to work in close collaboration with our suppliers, scientists and relevant industry experts to make solid progress to tackle the problem at all stages of the supply chain.”

For more on the FSA’s latest figures, click here​.

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