The Food Standards Agency, the UK poultry industry, and major retailers have agreed a new target that will measure efforts to reduce the levels of the food bug campylobacter in chickens.
Almost two thirds of raw chickens sold in the UK are contaminated with campylobacter. It is estimated to make more than 300,000 people ill and cause about 80 deaths every year.
There are three categories of contamination and 27% of birds are currently in the highest category. The new target is for the industry to reduce the numbers of these most contaminated birds in UK poultry houses from 27% to 10% by 2015.
The Agency estimates that achievement of this target could mean a reduction in campylobacter food poisoning of up to 30%; some 90,000 cases per year.
Dr Alison Gleadle, director of food hygiene at the Food Standards Agency, said: ‘The Food Standards Agency has identified tackling campylobacter as its number one food safety priority. There are about 850 million chickens slaughtered in this country every year. This target is challenging but achievable. However, solutions need to be found at every stage of the food chain to stop this bug from spreading.
‘The new target will underpin all of our joint work on reducing campylobacter in chicken and allow us to measure the success of these interventions. We are working closely with the food industry to make chicken as safe to eat as possible.’
Peter Bradnock, chief executive of the British Poultry Council said: ‘High levels of hygiene or biosecurity on UK farms have been successful in beating salmonella in chickens, but it has proved not enough against campylobacter. Additional actions are being trialled in combination on farms, in the slaughterhouse, and in the distribution chain to reduce the levels of infection. We are confident that the outcomes of the Joint Action Plan, combined with new scientific knowledge expected from ongoing projects, will enable campylobacter in chickens to be reduced in line with this challenging target.’
Andrew Opie, director of food policy at the British Retail Consortium, said: ‘We recognise the importance of this issue and are working with the Agency and the poultry industry to identify the most effective control measures in the supply chain. Finalising the target is a useful tool for industry to be able to monitor its progress. We’re looking forward to working closely with the Agency and the poultry supply chain to make sure the target can be achieved by 2015.’
Options being considered to reduce campylobacter levels in the slaughterhouse include better hygiene measures on farm, hot water treatment or steaming chicken carcasses, the use of electrolysed water, and anti-microbial washes such as lactic acid. Such washes would require approval from Europe.
Another option might be for pre-packed chicken on retail sale to be packed in’modified atmosphere packaging’, which raises the levels of oxygen inside packs to slow the rate at which bugs multiply. Better leak-proof packaging could also help prevent the spread of the bacteria to other foods or surfaces in the kitchen.
To gauge consumer opinion on these interventions, the Agency has carried out research that has been today published on the Agency’s website (see the link to the Citizen forum report on campylobacter below).
The Agency continues to encourage consumers to play a part in tackling campylobacter by avoiding cross contamination from utensils that have been in contact with fresh chicken meat, not washing poultry before it is cooked to avoid spreading germs, and by cooking chicken meat thoroughly.
* Citizens’ forum: campylobacter in chicken, to download report click here.
* The joint government and industry target to reduce campylobacter in UK produced chickens by 2015, click here to download this report.
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