Meat industry faces rush to cut campylobacter

Supermarkets could lose half their customers to rival retailers for stocking above-average quantities of chicken at ‘high risk’ of campylobacter contamination, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reports. 

More than half of consumers (53%) said they would start buying poultry from another supermarket if their usual shop sold a higher than average amount of chicken that is at ‘high risk’ of campylobacter.

The consumer research survey on campylobacter – the biggest cause of food poisoning in the UK – by the FSA revealed the public wants further action to reduce poultry contamination. Two-thirds of people want to see meat processors and supermarkets slash levels of campylobacter beyond the current industry-agreed target of 10%.

“We have always said that consumer power will ultimately push industry action,” said Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA. He added that the FSA was “seeing progress” from meat processors and retailers to tackle campylobacter, with many pledging to ensure the troublesome contaminant no longer remains a “significant public health issue”.

Campylobacter is believed to cause up to 280,000 cases of food poisoning a year, leading to 100 deaths and costing the UK economy roughly £900m.

Ursula Lavery, Moy Park technical and R&D director of Europe, said: “Reducing Campylobacter remains a top priority and we have in place a comprehensive action plan. Our focus on leading scientific research and in-depth data analysis has allowed us to concentrate our efforts in a targeted direction and we are now seeing progress as a result. Our innovative work across the supply chain will continue with the aim of further reducing levels of this complex organism.”

Moy Park supplies poultry to a number of supermarkets, many of whom have weighed in on the latest research from the FSA.

“We have made significant progress in tackling campylobacter, including bringing in a new supplier and introducing sono-steam and rapid-chill technologies,” said a spokesperson from Morrisons.

“Our own testing shows that throughout 2016, average levels are now just 1.3% – well below the FSA’s own target. We continuously share the results of our own testing with the FSA and our performance is routinely updated on our corporate website.

“While the results of our reduction programme are extremely encouraging, we are not complacent and we will continue to work closely with the FSA and our suppliers to reduce the presence of campylobacter even further.”

Tesco is another retailer driving plans forward to reduce campylobacter levels, aiming for 95% of its chickens to be free from the most dangerous levels of bacteria by 2017.

Tesco’s group quality director, Tim Smith, said the business had seen “real progress” in lowering levels of campylobacter in its supply chain. He said 93% of its chickens no longer test positive for the highest levels of the sometimes lethal food-poisoning bug.

Only 9.3% of chickens tested posted for the highest levels of campylobacter contamination across the UK, according to figures for January to March, published by the FSA in May. This represented a significant drop from the previous quarter, when levels of contamination hit 21.8%.

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