Campylobacter – after the storm

norman bagleyI get the impression that, before releasing the campylobacter poultry meat supermarket statistics to an expectant world, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) looked over the parapet and had a slight change of heart. It was as if it had suddenly realised that it was set up to prevent food scares by scientifically assessing and communicating food-related risks, not to start hares running.

It is now reassuring to read on the Agency’s website that “Chicken is safe as long as consumers follow good kitchen practice.” What a change from “You can’t see it, smell it or even taste it on food, but if it affects you, you won’t forget it. At its worst, it can kill you.”

There have still been some pretty scary messages in the media, for which the Agency must take some of the blame, in the way it selectively quoted from the excellent report it commissioned for the Second Infectious Intestinal Disease Study (iid2). One such message was that campylobacter causes more than 100 deaths a year. That is not a statement based on science. The iid2 report suggests that if the mortality rates in Norway are assumed to be the same as in the UK, then 220 deaths from campylobacter would occur each year in the UK, and half of those would be food-borne. So far so good, but it goes on to warn that “great caution should be taken on interpreting such analyses”, deaths “are often associated with vulnerable groups that have underlying conditions”, and “it is difficult to determine the extent to which the food-borne pathogen, rather than an underlying condition, was responsible”.

The truth, therefore, is that campylobacter, although very unpleasant, is highly unlikely to kill the healthy reader of the FSA’s website. Nor does it kill dozens of people a year, as Steve Wearne, the FSA’s director of policy, was quoted as saying at the press briefing. The iid2 report sums up the severity of campylobacter infection: “It is only responsible for a small proportion of hospital admissions, reflecting a generally lower level of disease severity compared with other bacterial pathogens.”

I don’t underestimate the need to tackle campylobacter. It is the commonest cause of infectious intestinal disease and, in the worst case scenario, 40% of cases may be due to poultry meat. However, the lack of progress is not all at the feet of the industry. Apart from cooking, there are two points on the food chain where campylobacter can be tackled. Firstly on the farm by increased biosecurity. That works to some extent, but it is not an option for free-range and organic birds. The FSA did not provide figures for how many of its samples came from housed and how many from free-range birds, but I understand free-range birds have significantly higher levels of contamination.

The second point is after production by the use of chemical or physical treatments (such as surface freezing or irradiation). The industry did use chlorine in the past, of course, but the EU inspectors found out and stopped it. Subsequently, consumer organisations have opposed other chemical treatments – as HACCP was purported to be the answer. Well, HACCP doesn’t work if there are no CCPs or corrective actions.

I don’t see much consumer involvement in the current debate, and perhaps now that everyone has a better understanding of the problem, it would be time to find out what the consumer will accept. I cannot see the consumer wanting free-range poultry banned, so do they want chemical or physical treatments? If so, are chemical treatments a no-no? If only hugely expensive physical treatments are acceptable, are they happy not to be able to source local produce? Or would the consumer be happy to accept that poultry meat is safe as long as they follow good kitchen practice?

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