Campylobacter: A work in progress

Progress has been made on campylobacter by all parties but there is more to do. Aidan Fortune looks at the ongoing battle against the superbug. 

Earlier this month, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published its final survey report on its campylobacter. In this 51-page report, it highlighted the fact that in the 4,011 samples of whole, UK-produced fresh chicken, tested in the period from February 2014 to March 2015, the prevalence of campylobacter was found in 73.3% of samples while 19.4% of samples had more than 1,000 cfu/g on it.

The FSA had previously praised some retailers for their work in cutting down incidences of the bug, but believed that, given chickens from some retailers were less contaminated, “it is possible to achieve better control of campylobacter” and urged other retailers to follow suit. This led to retailers outlining their plans to tackle the bug.

What are processors doing?

Unfortunately, while businesses are investing in cutting down on campylobacter, there is no guarantee that it can be completely eliminated. Last November, 2 Sisters Food Group launched a £10m campylobacter reduction programme, but admitted “that there no easy way to tackle a complex problem quickly or 100% effectively”.

It has seen success by cutting out the practice of thinning poultry flocks and introducing secondary scalding of carcases. It said: “Where we have applied interventions such as ‘no-thinning’ of poultry flocks (the evidence suggests campylobacter is spread at this point), our own more recent results show significant signs of improvement. Our independently verified data shows year-on-year improvements where campylo-bacter is most present.

“With the further use of our new factory intervention such as our secondary scalding technique, we anticipate an even greater removal of campylobacter, reducing its presence to significantly less than the industry target of 10%. The success of these trials means we are now looking at rolling this initiative out to a wider customer base.”

Meanwhile Cargill revealed it will introduce SonoSteam technology at its Hereford primary chicken processing plant in the UK, as part of its farm-to-fork action plan to tackle campylobacter. SonoSteam, a process developed by the Danish company Force Technology, uses a combination of steam and ultrasound to kill microorganisms such as campylobacter on the skin and internal cavities of chicken. This new technology is expected to be operational at Cargill’s Hereford facility by the end of 2015.

Chris Hall, fresh chicken director for Cargill Meats Europe, said: “We focused initially on our farms and primary processing and, analysing our results in the first half of this year, we have seen an improvement year-on-year of approximately 38%. But there is still more to do. We have followed the development of new technologies closely and made the commitment that we would adopt one as soon as it proved effective.”

FSA director of policy Steve Wearne welcomed the investment, but not everyone is impressed with the progress made. Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd said: “Three out of four supermarket chickens people buy could be infected with a potentially fatal bacteria. Retailers, the industry and the FSA must continue with their efforts to crack down on campylobacter. It’s encouraging that some supermarkets are making headway in tackling this bug, but we must now see all retailers take urgent action to meet FSA targets and make chicken safe.”

Next steps

What is next though? The FSA has started another round of tests and is now including retailers such as Aldi and Lidl. It warns there is likely to be a higher rate of incidences during the summer months than in winter, so the testing that began in July could reveal that all these steps have been for nothing.

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