Given that incidents of campylobacteriosis in the UK population were continuing to rise, despite the huge efforts along the food supply chain to reduce the high levels of infection campylobacter on whole chickens on sale in supermarkets, Alec Kyriakides, head of product quality, safety and supplier performance at Sainsbury, asked whether the targets set were correct.
Speaking at a meeting of the FSA’s Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) in London last week, Kyriakides recognised the importance of reducing campylobacter in chicken. “There is a huge amount going on in the industry to tackle this,” he said. But he queried the validity of the FSA’s targets.
Campylobacter in chicken is believed to be the most likely source of the foodborne illness campylobacteriosis in people.
50% reduction in human infection
While the industry had so far failed to meet the FSA’s target of reducing the highest levels of contamination – greater than 1,000 colony forming units per gram (cpu/g) – from 30% of birds on sale to 10%, which the FSA suggested would result in a 50% reduction in human infection, it had reduced the level to 20%, noted Kyriakides.
“But there has been no impact on [human infection] cases at all,” he added. “Is the target figure correct in what we want to achieve in terms of human health?”
ACMSF chair Sarah O’Brien, a consultant in public health medicine, who is also professor of infection epidemiology and zoonoses at the University of Liverpool, also conceded: “The jury is still out in that area.”
Tackling campylobacter is the FSA’s top priority, and a number of initiatives are being introduced by the industry – from farm to fork – to cut contamination levels. These include Rapid Surface Chilling (RSC), Blast Surface Chilling (BSC) and SonoSteam techniques in chicken processing factories, although these are not yet widely used.
However, a survey of fresh chickens on sale published by the FSA earlier this year showed persistently high levels of campylobacter on supermarket chickens that were failing to achieve the reduction targets it had set, with 73% of shop-bought chicken testing positive for campylobacter and around 20% contaminated at levels above 1,000cfu/g.
New campylobacter survey
Presenting a paper to the ACMSF on the retail survey, the FSA’s head of foodborne disease Dr Kevin Hargin remarked that the Agency would continue with a second year’s survey starting this summer and planned a programme review of its research into campylobacter in early 2016.
Although early days, Hargin noted that the procedures and processes being introduced to reduce levels of campylobacter contamination were starting to have a positive effect and he hoped these would feed through into the next survey of chicken.
“These appear to be working their way into the food chain and having an improvement in the line,” said Hargin.
Hargin referred to the SonoSteam technique, which had recently gone into full production at Faccenda’s chicken processing factory at Brackley. He said this technique was also being evaluated as a means of decontaminating crates and modules used to transport chickens.
As part of the review of the EU’s poultry meat marketing regulations, Hargin called on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to seek a widening of the temperature ranges at which chicken could be handled and still labelled at fresh from -2–4°C to -4–5°C. “It would allow extra latitude to make these techniques more effective,” he said.
Change to the rules
A change to the rules would also help UK processors compete with what they considered to be unfair competition from other countries, he added.
In addition, although the European Food Safety Authority had cleared the use of peroxyacetic acid antimicrobial surface treatment of chicken as safe, the European Commission had yet to approve its use, said Hargin. “We are not sure whether they will yet,” he noted. “But it would be an interesting development if they did.”
Hargin added that a possible revision to the campylobacter reduction targets would be on the agenda at the July FSA board meeting, together with revised targets set for individual retailers, including Aldi and Lidl. The board would also consider whether more legislative and non-legislative measures were require to cut campylobacter.