Campylobacter has been the commonest cause of foodborne disease in the UK for nearly ten years. Yet until quite recently, comparatively few people had ever heard of it. That is changing rapidly as the mainstream media begins to focus much more attention on this rather unusual pathogen. The latest flurry of coverage was generated last week by the UK Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) publication of the results of a retail survey of Campylobacter in whole fresh chickens. The headline figure was an overall contamination rate of 70%, but perhaps more significant was the news that 18% of the birds tested positive for levels of Campylobacter higher than 1,000 cfu/g. This must be very disappointing for the Agency, since it has a target to reduce the number of highly contaminated chicken carcases down to 10% by 2015. It’s hard to see how this can be achieved based on these latest results. The other aspect of the results that made headlines was the ‘naming and shaming’ of retailers, with the contamination rates for each of the big supermarkets being set out in a table. For what it’s worth, Asda was the worst at 78%, while Tesco was top of the class with 64%, but the important point is that none of them are meeting targets for reducing Campylobacter at end-of-production.
What this tells us is that very little has changed in the last ten years. Successive surveys of Campylobacter in poultry on retail sale have shown contamination rates of between 50% and 90% – even 100% in a few cases – and a 2007-2008 FSA survey showed an overall prevalence of 65% in the UK, actually slightly better than the current results. This is despite the considerable effort that has gone into cutting infection in chicken flocks through better biosecurity and reducing cross contamination during processing by improved hygiene and equipment design. Clearly this has not been enough, although the number of heavily contaminated carcases does seem to have fallen from around 25% to 18% since 2010. Nevertheless, handling and consuming raw fresh poultry remains the biggest risk factor for human Campylobacter infection.
The harsh glare of the media spotlight may not be welcomed by poultry processors or by the supermarkets, but it will surely accelerate progress towards better control measures for Campylobacter. Several new decontamination technologies are already at the trial stage and could make important contributions to reducing contamination rates if successful. On the other hand, we have been living with this problem for a long time and it’s important to maintain a sense of proportion and avoid ill-considered action that could cause new problems. The solutions need to be measured, science-based and effective, but they also need to be implemented quickly. If the next survey shows no improvement, excuses will be thin on the ground. Bad press could be just the wakeup call needed to ensure that no excuses are needed.
You can find out more about Campylobacter in our Food Safety Watch factsheet.