Last reviewed 24 July 2015

Recent investigations by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) have confirmed that the food poisoning bug, campylobacter bacteria, has been found in around 73% of shop-bought chickens, and is estimated to cause illness in as many as one in three people in the UK. In response, the Agency has made clear that current levels are unacceptable, and it expects action from every part of the UK food supply chain. This article, by Vicky Powell, a Health and Safety writer, looks at the issue and the unprecedented action being taken on a number of levels in the British food industry, in order to address the problem.

Facts about campylobacter

In May 2015, the FSA published the final set of results from its year-long survey of campylobacter on fresh chickens. The Agency’s 12-month survey ran from February 2014 to February 2015 and tested around 4000 samples of whole chickens bought from UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers. It concluded that a massive 73% of fresh shop-bought chicken tested positive for the food poisoning bug campylobacter.

The spiral-shaped campylobacter bacterium is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, with over a quarter of a million cases (280,000) reported each year, potentially affecting up to a third of the population during their lifetime. It is estimated, that specifically, about 80% of cases of campylobacter food poisoning in the UK are as a result of contaminated poultry.

The incubation period, between eating contaminated food and the start of symptoms, for food poisoning caused by campylobacter is usually between two and five days and symptoms usually last less than a week.

Common symptoms include diarrhoea, abdominal pain and, sometimes, vomiting, as well as fever, muscular pain and headache.

The illness usually lasts between 2 and 10 days and can be particularly serious in small children and the elderly.

In severe cases, food poisoning from the bacterium can lead to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, reactive arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Furthermore, the FSA warns that campylobacter spreads easily and has “a low infective dose” and so only a few bacteria in a piece of undercooked chicken, or bacteria transferred from raw chicken onto other ready-to-eat foods, can cause illness.

Previous estimates have indicated that campylobacter causes more than 100 deaths a year, and costs the UK economy about £900 million.

A source at the FSA said of the campylobacter figures, “It’s an unacceptably high public health burden, and the main responsibility for addressing this rests with the food industry.”

Call for action and FSA campaigning

Catherine Brown, the Chief Executive of the FSA, has said that what is needed is “a shift in culture and a refocusing of effort by both government and the food industry” to tackle the “persistent and serious problem” of campylobacter.

In May 2015, the FSA marked Food Safety Week by launching a new “Chicken Challenge” safety campaign. The initiative has been supported by a wide range of stakeholders in the food industry, from retailers such as Aldi, Sainsbury’s and M&S, to catering companies such as Sodexo and the British Hospitality Association which represents hotels, restaurants and food services companies.

The FSA’s Chicken Challenge is aimed at improving kitchen safety practice and focuses on raising awareness of the following.

  • How to store raw chicken: Any stored raw chicken should be covered and stored in such a way that the juices cannot drip on to other foods and cross-contaminate them with bacteria. For example, raw chicken should be stored separately from other food, covered and chilled on the bottom shelf of the fridge rather than a higher shelf.

  • The importance of not washing raw chicken: Raw chicken should not be washed because washing poultry can spread germs around by splashing contaminated water onto surfaces and other utensils.

  • Hand and utensil washing: Those who prepare food should wash their hands and used utensils with hot water and soap. It is important to thoroughly wash everything that has touched raw chicken.

  • Cooking chicken thoroughly: It is important to check chicken is cooked properly until it is steaming hot throughout, with no pink meat and the juices running clear.

Action within the food industry

The Chicken Challenge is aimed in particular at good kitchen practice but the FSA is also pressing the industry to reduce levels of campylobacter contamination at each production stage to as low a level as possible before raw chicken even reaches kitchens.

Indeed, it is clear that the FSA expects action from within the food industry, at all levels, to deal with the issue of campylobacter.

Catherine Brown said, “While we remain committed to joint working with industry we want to encourage and see producers, processors and retailers treat campylobacter reduction not simply as a technical issue but as a core business priority —and I see some encouraging signs of that happening.”

In response, there have been unprecedented levels of activity taking place within the food industry to tackle the issue.

In May 2015, one well well-known British food processer, Northamptonshire-based Faccenda Foods, announced it would be implementing a new steaming and ultrasound technology after a successful trial, to tackle campylobacter bacteria levels on its chicken.

Results from the trials of the SonoSteam technology indicated a reduction of over 80% reduction in Campylobacter on the neck and breast skin of fresh, whole chickens; measured at the point in time when the consumer would typically purchase and cook the chicken. The company confirmed it would implement a continuous running phase of the new system in June 2015.

Furthermore, case studies published in May 2015 by Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, the Co-op and Waitrose each reveal the results of recently implemented campylobacter reduction plans. Strategies employed by the retailers have included new “blast surface” chilling technology that reduces bacteria levels without freezing chickens, farmer and supplier incentives, clearer consumer labelling and new roast-in-the-bag products which mean poultry does not have to be unwrapped by consumers.

The latest data, according to the FSA, has showed significant decreases in the incidence of campylobacter on raw whole chickens, with tests being carried out on more recent samples than those taken from the FSA survey samples, and some targeted to demonstrate the effect of particular interventions.

Steve Wearne, FSA Director of Policy, said, “I am absolutely delighted to see the really encouraging results from these four supermarkets and their suppliers.”

Future plans

The FSA has made clear it expects all retailers and processors to be achieving similar improvements to the above companies.

There are three categories of campylobacter contamination levels and, currently, 27% of birds are in the highest category. The FSA’s latest target is for the food industry to reduce the numbers of the most contaminated birds from 27% to 10% by the end of 2015. It is estimated that achievement of this target could mean a reduction in campylobacter food poisoning of up to 30% — about 111,000 cases per year.

The FSA has also confirmed it will run its survey for a second year and will again look at campylobacter levels on chickens at retail sale.

It is evident that the food industry is taking real action on the issue of campylobacter-related food poisoning and that in the coming months and years, the FSA will continue to expect further progress, in the form of commitments, new technology and other tangible action, at all levels in the British chicken supply chain.