Retailers show further progress in chicken bug war
Published:  14 June, 2017

Retailers battling Campylobacter are gaining ground in their fight against the food poisoning bug’s contamination of raw whole chickens, according to the latest figures from the Food Standards Agency (FSA). 

A strong performer was Waitrose, which according to samples taken from the skin of whole birds and tested by the FSA indicated the lowest levels of overall contamination compared with other top supermarkets. By contrast, The Co-op had the highest levels.

Waitrose’s record concerning the amount of birds that tested positive for the highest levels of contamination was also impressive, although Marks & Spencer just beat it with the lowest levels there. The highest levels were seen in Lidl.

The results for the period from January to March this year indicated the amount of birds contaminated at the highest levels fell again. Proportions fell from 7% in the first five months of the latest testing period (August to December 2016) to 6.5% (January to March 2017). Results appear even better when set next to the same period last year, when 9.3% of birds tested positive at highest contamination levels. These levels stood at 12% in 2015 and 20% in 2014, showing consistent decline.

Independent retailers, including butchers, also showed marked progress in eradicating Campylobacter contamination in raw whole birds, with overall levels down significantly from 82.9% to 59%. A total of 16.9% of birds sampled from the independent sector tested positive for the highest levels of contamination (more than 1,000 colony forming units per gramme), down from 19.2% in the five month results posted in March.

A spokeswoman for the Q Guild of butchers said: "Health and hygiene is a large part of the Q Guild ethic and so we welcome these type of reports, which reflect our groups ethos.

"The 'Others' group in which independent butchers feature is a very small sample (83 independent retailers out of 5,000 plus butchers). As the Q Guild we can only comment for our members, who are all rated four stars or above for Health & Hygiene ratings."

The improvement in the highest levels of contamination was mirrored by the decrease in the number of human cases – an estimated 100,000 fewer cases of campylobacter in 2016, according to the FSA.

Alex Neill, managing director of home products and services at consumer group Which? said: "It is encouraging to see that overall levels of campylobacter in chickens are falling and that major retailers are meeting the FSA’s target.

"However, there is no room for complacency as the survey shows that levels can vary greatly depending on where consumers shop and in many cases over half of chickens are still contaminated.”

FSA chair Heather Hancock commented: “It is good to see that levels continue to go down as this indicates that the major retailers and processors are getting to grips with campylobacter,” said FSA chair Heather Hancock. “These results give us a clear picture of the positive direction in which we are heading, and help us measure the impact of interventions that are being used to reduce contamination. While results are reassuring, we want to see more progress among the smaller businesses, to achieve real and lasting reductions.

“In the meantime, I am delighted to see the commitment and responsibility that the industry has shown, so far, in their efforts to provide consumers with food they can trust. They have invested a lot of effort and money into interventions to tackle the problem and it is showing clear results.”

Since the FSA launched the first survey on Campylobacter contamination in whole birds in 2014, processors have worked hard with their retail customers on solutions to tackle the problem.

For example, Waitrose has worked hard with Moy Park, outlining its efforts in a statement in 2015. Measures it takes include sophisticated testing and analysis; enhanced biosecurity; farmer incentives; unique flock management systems; effective washing techniques and optimised factory procedures.

In turn, Marks & Spencer has worked with 2 Sisters Food Group to implement practices such as Rapid Surface Chilling of products and double bagging of chickens.