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Food chain must work together to tackle Campylobacter

Campylobacter has been hitting the headlines recently, with nearly three-quarters of fresh chickens in retailers and butchers contaminated with the bacteria. Richard Turner from St David’s Poultry Team considers how the food chain can work to meet new FSA targets.

Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, causing around 100 deaths a year and costing the UK economy about £900m every year. Although the bacteria is naturally always present in the environment and the industry is already working hard to reduce infection rates, the Food Standards Agency wants to halve the number of cases in 2015 – so what else can the industry do to meet this target?

Perhaps the biggest problem with Campylobacter is that it’s nothing new, and it’s not entirely clear how chickens become infected. Birds only tend to test positive from 17 days old onwards, so it probably doesn’t come in from the parent flock. It may carry over in the shed but it’s not a very resilient bacterium, so a thorough clean between flocks should tackle that.

The other two possible routes of infection are flies or people coming onto the farm, particularly when thinning out flocks. When birds are fasted it causes changes to the gut pH, which could allow Campylobacter to take hold. Fortunately, the bacteria do not affect the birds in any way; there are no outward signs of infection. Productivity and bird health is unaffected, so the disease is usually not identified until random testing at the abattoir.

Unfortunately, some processes after slaughter can further spread the bacteria from infected birds to uninfected ones. When birds are eviscerated there is a risk of gut spillage, and when they are put through the scald tank to remove feathers there is further risk of transmission.

With so many layers of risk, it’s clear that there is no silver bullet for tackling Campylobacter. And because there are no health implications for the birds, or financial penalties for infection, one might ask: Why should farmers act? Given the very tight margins they operate to, it’s a reasonable question. But farmers are not just farmers; they are food producers. And if there is anything more the supply chain can do to reduce Campylobacter, they should be doing it – provided they are not financially penalised.

So from a farmer’s perspective, it’s all about good hygiene and bio-security. There is no effective vaccine against Campylobacter, but probiotics and organic acids can boost the bird’s immune system and make the gut an inhospitable place for the bad bacteria. There is also an option to introduce predatory viruses, called bacteriophages, to kill the bacteria.

There is talk about whether producers should stop thinning flocks – but of course that has serious financial implications. As do processors’ options like rapid surface chilling or sonar steaming to kill Campylobacter before packaging the birds. It’s also possible to test the birds before slaughter, and process clean birds first.

Ultimately, it comes down to who picks up the bill. With margins so tight, producers can’t absorb the extra costs – so will the public be prepared to pay more? There’s still plenty they can do at home to reduce the risk of food poisoning. First and foremost – don’t wash raw chicken because infected particles can splash around the kitchen. Ensure chicken is cooked through, and if you’re concerned, buy cook-in-the-bag chicken so you don’t even have to handle the raw meat.

Responsibility for tackling Campylobacter falls upon everyone involved in the production and consumption of chicken: From farmer to fork. Without integrated action – the costs of which must be passed on to the consumer – it will continue to be the main cause of food poisoning in the UK.

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