Yesterday (27 November), the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published cumulative results from the first two quarters of its year-long survey on the rates of contamination of Campylobacter on fresh chickens by major UK retailer.
Campylobacter is a common cause of food poisoning, affecting an estimated 280,000 people and costing the UK economy about £900 million each year.
The FSA has been pressing the food industry to reduce the levels of Campylobacter contamination across their supply chains, but the results show that none of the retailers are achieving the joint industry end-of-production target for reducing Campylobacter.
Key survey results:
- 18% of chickens tested positive for Campylobacter above the highest level of contamination*
- 70% of chickens tested positive for the presence of Campylobacter
- 6% of packaging tested positive for the presence of Campylobacter with only one sample at the highest level of contamination (>1,000 cfu/g)
* Above 1,000 colony forming units per gram (>1,000 cfu/g). These units indicate the degree of contamination on each sample.
Since 2009, the UK food industry has invested much money, time and effort in developing Campylobacter interventions. These include extensive biosecurity measures, processing treatments, leak-proof packaging and now cook-in-the bag chicken, but levels of contamination are still not falling. (2007-2008 FSA survey states 65% contamination on retail chicken)
These new results show that the food industry needs to do more to reduce the amount of Campylobacter found in chicken, and ultimately improve public health.
Campylobacter is not only a food safety issue, but a bird welfare issue too…
Campylobacter was largely viewed as a harmless bacterium to the bird, flourishing in the gut when the bird was stressed or ill, and excreted in the faeces, causing it to spread rapidly throughout the flock.
A growing body of evidence, however, shows that Campylobacter causes intestinal inflammation, mucosal damage, and changes in the bird’s gut permeability. The latter allows the bacteria into the body via the bloodstream and results in Campylobacter contamination within the muscle and liver. The public health issue is therefore not isolated to outer contamination.
Campylobacter colonisation has been shown to reduce growth rates and feed efficiency in seemingly healthy birds, whilst long periods of inflammation have been shown to cause diarrhoea, leading to wet and sticky litter and high rates of hockburn and foot pad dermatitis. Campylobacteriosis is a painful disease in humans, and there is growing concern that it is negatively affecting bird welfare.
The genetic background of the bird is important, with high growth rate breeds having poor regulation of the inflammatory response and being negatively affected by the Campylobacter colonisation, than slower growing breeds.
Broiler welfare and public health
The link between bird welfare and public health cannot be ignored if we want a reduction in Campylobacter. What’s clear is that our desire for cheap chicken, which is relentlessly driving down prices, is a fundamental barrier to solving this issue.
It pushes producers to use chicken breeds selected for higher and higher growth rates and increase the number of birds in each shed, both of which are bad for animal welfare and increase the likelihood of Campylobacter colonisation.
Recent announcements by retailers include incentivising farms to be Campylobacter-free and stopping the practice of thinning, could potentially drive change, so long as the fundamental issue of improving bird health and welfare is also addressed.
As consumers, by eating less and paying more for better meat, we can change the future of chicken farming for the better and support higher welfare systems which will ultimately be good for people and animals.