Campylobacter is by far the most common cause of foodborne illness in Europe and North America, but you wouldn’t know that from the little attention it gets in the media. At least that was the case until 23 July, when the Guardian newspaper published a report called Revealed: the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry. The very first revelation was, “Two-thirds of fresh retail chicken in UK contaminated with Campylobacter” – a fact since confirmed by the latest Food Standards Agency survey results. The report was based on a five-month investigation of hygiene standards in the poultry processing industry and highlighted opportunities for cross contamination between chicken carcasses offered by equipment breakdowns and breaches of hygiene rules.
The Guardian report caused a predictable stir and prompted action from the Food Standards Agency, which – following encouragement from Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt – decided to investigate the processors identified in the report. Plants run by the 2 Sisters Food Group in Scunthorpe and Anglesey were duly audited, but were given a clean bill of health, suggesting that the picture painted by the Guardian report may have been rather blacker than was actually the case. Nevertheless, by then the damage had been done and a potential food scare was in progress. Consumers horrified by the report pledged to stop buying chicken and several big retailers announced that they would be investigating their poultry meat suppliers.
The Guardian is to be applauded for drawing the public’s attention to an issue that they ought to be more aware of, but the sensationalist style of the report was unhelpful. Campylobacter contamination rates in chicken are a serious problem and poultry is a major contributor to the estimated 280,000 cases of illness the pathogen causes in the UK each year. There is a lot that needs to be done, but it doesn’t help to simply blame the poultry processing industry for everything, or to hint darkly at cover-ups and conspiracies. For example, a line in the report reads – “Although the public are mostly unaware of it, the scale of Campylobacter contamination and the number of people it makes ill each year have been well-known among industry bosses, retail directors and government officials for more than a decade.” That is hardly fair. There has never been any attempt to suppress those figures, which are regularly published and freely available to anyone who cares to look for them. The reason that there is so little awareness of Campylobacter among consumers is that it rarely causes large – and therefore newsworthy – outbreaks of food poisoning, and so press and TV hardly ever mention it. Until now, media disinterest has been more of a barrier to awareness than any conspiracy.
On the other hand, there is little doubt that commercial pressures on food processors of all kinds have grown in recent years as profit margins have shrunk and the demands of retailers have grown. That is a situation that can lead to corners being cut and it is possible that the incidents the Guardian’s reporters witnessed were a result of those pressures. Yet the poultry industry is also at the forefront of attempts to reduce Campylobacter contamination. For example, Faccenda – the second processor identified in the Guardian report – has been working with partners to develop a ‘Rapid Surface Chilling’ process designed to kill Campylobacter on chicken carcasses. Sadly, that didn’t merit a mention in the report. But what should really matter to consumers and to industry is that future Campylobacter surveys show falling contamination rates. If nothing else, the Guardian’s contribution has raised the profile of the problem and could hasten progress towards a solution.