FSA names and shames retailers in chicken campylobacter study

Seventy per cent of retailed raw chicken is infected with campylobacter, with none of Britain’s biggest supermarkets meeting end-of-line production targets.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has released its second-quarter results from its year-long survey into levels of campylobacter in chicken, which have named and shamed British retailers, showing levels worse than expected.

On average, 70% of chicken tested was infected however, Asda performed worst out of the retailers with 78% of its chicken skin samples testing positive for the bacteria.

Tesco had the lowest incidence of infected chicken at the highest level, with 64% of skin samples testing positive for campylobacter and was the only retailer with infected chicken lower than the industry average.

An Asda spokeswoman said: “We take campylobacter seriously and it goes without saying that we’re disappointed with these findings. There is no ‘silver bullet’ to tackle this issue, but, along with other retailers, we’re working hard to find a solution.

“We welcome the transparency of the FSA results and we are committed to food safety. We have led the industry in packaging innovation and were the first supermarket to launch roast-in-the-bag chicken, removing the need to handle raw meat.”

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*The ‘Others’ category includes supermarkets where the market share was deemed small using the 2010 Kantar data, i.e. Lidl, Aldi, Iceland, plus convenience stores, independents, butchers etc.

Retailers including Asda, Marks & Spencer and The Co-operative have already announced plans to reduce the levels of campylobacter in their chicken products. However, Steve Wearne, FSA director of policy said more needed to be done: “These results show that the food industry, especially retailers, need to do more to reduce the amount of campylobacter on fresh chickens. Although we are only halfway through the survey, 18% of birds tested had campylobacter over 1,000 colony-forming untis per gram (cfu/g), the highest level of contamination, and more than 70% of birds had some campylobacter on them. This shows there is a long way to go before consumers are protected from this bug.”

However, Wearne acknowledged that good consumer hygiene played an important role in preventing infection: “If chicken is cooked thoroughly and preparation guidelines are properly followed, the risk to the public is extremely low.

“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,” he added.

Prevention methods such as ‘SonoSteam’, adopted by Asda’s supplier Faccenda Foods has shown positive results during its trial period. Also, The Co-operative’s roast-in-a-bag initiative, which will see its entire whole chicken range sold in roast-in-a-bag packaging to prevent the spread of bacteria, are yet to make an impact. However, the FSA said ongoing sampling could measure their effect.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said the industry was working hard to reduce levels: “Today’s figures are an important reminder that we have not yet found a way to prevent the presence of campylobacter in raw chicken and supermarkets are working even harder to find solutions to help consumers, such as leak-proof packaging for all raw chicken and new roast-in-the-bag products – this is our top priority for food safety. Retailers, farmers and producers have been working with the FSA and Defra for many years as part of the joint government and industry campylobacter working group and millions have been invested into researching solutions for eradicating the bacteria.

“There has been concern that implementing a solution to prevent campylobacter will mean the cost of chicken increases, but we believe any increase should be small and, in our competitive market, retailers will work with their suppliers to do everything they can to avoid passing this on to consumers.”

The FSA’s 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.

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