An astonishing seven in ten fresh chickens sold in UK supermarkets are contaminated with campylobacter according to the Food Standards Agency.
The levels are higher than previous tests, announced in August, which revealed that the bug was present in 59% of birds tested.
Campylobacter is the biggest cause of food poisoning in the UK, costing the economy around £900 million and causing more than 100 deaths every year.
Action is urgently needed to reduce levels.
Our Director of Food Business, Dr Tracey Jones, said: “Campylobacter is not just a public health issue but an animal welfare issue too. The link between bird welfare and public health cannot be ignored if we want a reduction in campylobacter.
“What’s clear is that our desire for cheap chicken, which is relentlessly driving down prices, is a fundamental barrier to solving this issue.
“It pushes producers to use chicken breeds with higher growth rates and increase the number of birds in each shed, both of which are bad for animal welfare and increase the likelihood of campylobacter.”
The testing revealed that 18% of the 1,995 chickens tested contained the highest levels of campylobacter - levels most likely to make people ill. Also, 6% of packaging showed signs of the bug.
The results by retailer
For the first time the FSA announced the levels of campylobacter in fresh chicken by individual supermarkets. All of the supermarkets tested failed to meet national targets on campylobacter.
Asda had the highest levels of campylobacter with 78% of its chickens testing positive, followed by Co-op (73%), then Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose all on 69% then Marks & Spencer (67%) and Tesco at 64%.
What’s the solution?
Dr Tracey Jones continued: “What these results don’t tell us are the links with specific processors, where a high level of cross contamination can occur, or by breed of chicken.
“Some of the actions taken by retailers so far, like roast in the bag chicken, address the symptom not the cause. Others – such as incentivising farms to be campylobacter free and stopping thinning, where a proportion of birds are taken for slaughter before others – can potentially drive change, along with the other industry interventions already in place, so long as bird welfare is also addressed.”
Dr Tracey Jones continued: “By eating less and paying more for better meat, we can change the future of chicken farming for the better and support higher welfare systems which will have the potential to reduce the incidence of campylobacter and have a positive impact on public health.”