By Ahmed ElAmin
12/08/2005 – With up to 76 per cent of UK chickens testing positive for Campylobacter, processors and their suppliers will soon be facing a food safety crackdown from the country’s regulator.
The process will mean greater costs for UK food processors as they implement new measures and increased screening and cleaning techniques to reach the target. The problem is prevalent throughout the EU.
In a consultation document published yesterday the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) proposed reducing that level by 50 per cent in 2010, noting that it would be targeting the start of the supply chain first then moving through food processing and on to the retail level.
The FSA’s proposed target of 50 per cent reduction would apply only to UK-produced chickens, which runs against the advice of a committee report to the FSA last month. The advisory committee said any measures introduced by the FSA should also apply to imports.
The committee also said an effective programme at broiler farms and improving hygiene standards at slaughter, could enable contamination levels to be reduced to at least 25 per cent over the next two years.
In 2002, the UK imported about 350,000 tonnes of poultry meat, of which about 45,000 tonnes was from outside the EU.
And the high level set as a reduction target set by the FSA contrasts with the relatively low levels of Campylobacter targets set by other EU countries.
FSA supplied data shows that Norway was able to reduce Campylobacter found in its flocks to 7.6 per cent in 2002 from 18 per cent in 1991. Sweden was able to reduce levels to 9.9 per cent in 2000 from 13.3 per cent in 1992, Denmark to 35 per cent in 2003 from 43 per cent the year before and the Netherlands to 35 per cent in 2000 from 48 per cent in 1998.
An FSA spokesman was not able to supply an answer at publishing time to a query about why the UK’s targets are being set so high compared to other European countries. He was also not able to respond as to why the FSA was ignoring the committee’s advice on imports.
The Campylobacter campaign is part of the FSA’s policy to reduce the incidence of all foodborne disease, including Salmonella, by 20 per cent by April 2006.
Campylobacter is currently the biggest cause of food poisoning in the UK. A significant reduction in human campylobacteriosis would help the agency achieve its goal.
When the FSA was formed it set a target to reduce Salmonella in UK-produced chicken by 50 per cent by 2006. A recent FSA survey of retail chicken showed that about six per cent of chickens were contaminated with Salmonella, compared with the 20 per cent or greater rates of contamination found in earlier surveys.
A series of FSA’s surveys between 2001 and 2004 showed that between 42 per cent and 76 per cent of retail chickens were contaminated with Campylobacter depending on the region. The highest rate was found in Northern Ireland and the lowest in Wales.
Other available data shows that Campylobacter levels in the UK flock have remained fairly constant, perhaps with a slight reduction, over recent years, the FSA stated.
From January 2006 processing plants will be sampling neck skins and testing for Salmonella to comply with the microbiological criteria regulations. The regulator also proposes testing the samples for Campylobacter as a measure of progress towards the target.
The bid to reducing Campylobacter in chickens will cover the primary production, food processing, distribution and service sectors, the FSA said.
Campylobacter infection may cause sicknesses ranging from mild diarrhoea lasting 24 hours to severe illness lasting more than a week. The incubation period is typically two to five days. Long-term infection may lead to neurological, rheumatological and renal problems in humans.
“Given the prevalence of Campylobacter in poultry, and knowing how easily pathogens can persist and spread in the domestic and catering environments, we believe that reducing the level of the organism in poultry meat is likely to make a significant contribution to the battle against human foodborne illness,” the FSA advisory committee on the problem stated last month.
The committee also noted that “similar measures to those designed to reduce Campylobacter in UK broiler production also need to be introduced into supply chains where the source material is outside the UK”.
According to calculated extrapolations by Australian technology company Adviware, about 553,958 people were estimated to have fallen ill from Campylobacter during 2004 in the UK, 555,369 in France, 757,579 in Germany and 533,616 in Italy.
Chicken is a leading cause of food poisioning in the EU. This week 2138 cases of salmonella gastroenteritis were reported in Spain. The cases were linked to a single brand of pre-cooked, vacuum-packed roast chicken, which was commercially distributed throughout Spain.
The Spanish regulator has prevented further sale of the brand.