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70% of Supermarket Chicken is Contaminated

Campylobacter found in 70 per cent of retail chicken

SEVENTY per cent of chickens tested in a Food Standards Agency (FSA) survey on campylobacter on fresh chickens tested positive for the bug, the agency has revealed.

27 November 2014 | By Alistair Driver

  • 70 per cent of chickens tested positive for the presence of campylobacter
  • 18 per cent of chickens tested positive for campylobacter above the highest level of contamination – above 1,000 colony forming units per gram (>1,000 cfu/g)
  • 6 per cent of packaging tested positive for the presence of campylobacter with only one sample at the highest level of contamination

A total of 1,995 samples of fresh whole chilled chickens have now been tested, with packaging also tested for most of these samples.

70 per cent of chicken samples were found to be contaminated with campylobacter

This 12-month survey, running from February 2014 to February 2015, will test 4,000 samples of whole chickens bought from UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers.

The full report can be read here

The data show variations between retailers, with Asda showing the highest levels of contamination among the big multiples (at 78 per cent) and Tesco the lowest (64 per cent).

Retail results

RetailerNumber of samples% skin samples positive for campylobacter (95% confidence interval)% skin samples >1,000 cfu/g campylobacter (95% confidence interval)% pack samples positive for campylobacter (95% confidence interval)
Asda31278  (73 – 82)28  (23 – 33)12  (8 – 15)
The Co-operative17173  (66 – 80)19  (14 – 25)5  (2 – 9)
M&S6867  (55 – 78)22  (13 – 33)4  (0 – 10)
Morrison’s17969  (62 – 75)21  (16 – 28)9  (5 – 14)
Sainsbury’s30069  (63 – 74)14  (11 – 19)3  (1 – 6)
Tesco60764  (61 – 68)11  (9 – 14)3  (2 – 4)
Waitrose7069  (58  – 80)16  (8 – 25)9  (3 – 18)
Others*28876  (71 – 80)25  (20 – 30)7  (4 – 10)
Total1,99570 (68 – 72)18  (17 – 20)6 (5 – 7)

* The ‘Others’ category includes supermarkets where the market share was deemed small ie Lidl, Aldi, Iceland, plus convenience stores, independents, butchers etc.

(scroll along to view full table)

At this half-way stage in the survey the results show, taking the confidence intervals into account, that Tesco is the only one of the main retailers which has a lower incidence of chicken contaminated with campylobacter at the highest level (>1,000 cfu/g), compared to the industry average. 

Asda is the only main retailer which has a higher incidence of chicken that is contaminated by campylobacter at the highest level, compared to the industry average. However, the results suggest that none of the retailers is achieving the joint industry end-of-production target for reducing campylobacter.

The overall figures show an increase in contamination from the first quarter to the second quarter, which the FSA says is probably due to the second quarter’s samples being taken during the warmer summer months.

Long way to go

FSA director of policy Steve Wearne said the results showed the food industry, especially retailers, need to do more to reduce the amount of campylobacter on fresh chickens.

“Although we are only half-way through the survey, 18 per cent of birds tested had campylobacter over 1,000 cfu/g, the highest level of contamination, and more than 70 per cent of birds had some campylobacter on them.

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

Campylobacter, which is killed by thorough cooking, is the most common form of food poisoning in the UK, affecting an estimated 280,000 people a year. Poultry is the source of the majority of these cases.

The FSA said tackling campylobacter is its number one food safety priority. It is spearheading a campaign to bring together the whole food chain to tackle the problem.

‘If chicken is cooked thoroughly and preparation guidelines are properly followed, the risk to the public is extremely low,” Mr Wearne said.

‘There are signs that some retailers are starting to step up to their responsibilities. When more do, we will see the sustained improvements that will help prevent many of their customers getting ill.”

Recent developments

The agency highlighted recent developments in efforts to tackle campylobacter, including:

  • Marks & Spencer and its supplier, 2 Sisters Food Group, have recently developed a five-point plan, an integrated programme of interventions along the food chain to reduce levels of campylobacter.
  • Asda and its supplier, Faccenda, have committed to an innovative new steam technology (SonoSteam) that has shown promising results in tests and is now being installed at the Faccenda factory for full scale, in line trials.
  • Moy Park’s development of on-farm biosecurity, which has found cost effective ways of exceeding Red Tractor standards.
  • A number of retailers have introduced ‘roast in the bag’ chickens which help limit cross-contamination by minimising the handling of the raw chicken in the home.

The results from on-going sampling will allow the FSA and the food industry to see what impact they have had, the FSA said.

The joint working group (JWG) on campylobacter, made up of various interested parties, said it was committed to increasing awareness and transparency of the work it was doing.

Richard MacDonald, JWG chairman, said: “The British poultry meat industry, FSA, Defra, NFU and retailers have worked together since 2009 to understand this global issue and identify the means to tackle it.”

The group has launched a website, which he said was a ‘central resource for anyone wanting to understand more about the work the group has undertaken and for people to keep updated on developments’.

Consumer advice

The FSA is pressing the industry to play its part in reducing the levels of campylobacter contamination at each production stage to as low a level as possible before raw chicken reaches the consumer. Chicken is safe as long as consumers follow good kitchen practice:

  • Cover and chill raw chicken – cover raw chicken and store at the bottom of the fridge so juices cannot drip on to other foods and contaminate them with food poisoning bacteria such as campylobacter;
  • Don’t wash raw chicken – cooking will kill any bacteria present, including campylobacter, while washing chicken can spread germs by splashing;
  • Wash used utensils – thoroughly wash and clean all utensils, chopping boards and surfaces used to prepare raw chicken. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, after handling raw chicken. This helps stop the spread of campylobacter by avoiding cross contamination.
  • Cook chicken thoroughly – make sure chicken is steaming hot all the way through before serving. Cut in to the thickest part of the meat and check that it is steaming hot with no pink meat and that the juices run clear.
  • The Radical says that the results are not surprising considering the chickens all probably went through the same processing factory and came out with different supermarket labels

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