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UK Food Safety Agency Purchasing Raw Chickens at Retail for Campylobacter Testing

Raw chickens are being purchased out of grocery store poultry coolers in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland for the United Kingdom’s most aggressive retail testing for Campylobacter to be conducted by the Food Standards Agency since 2008.

Human Campylobacter illnesses hardly moved last year off peak levels that have FSA officials concerned. As a result, reducing Campylobacter in chicken has emerged as a top priority for FSA in a targeted approach for reducing foodborne illness.

At FSA’s board of directors meeting today at London’s Aviation House, the agency policy director, Steve Wearne, will outline how the retail chicken testing will be accomplished.

In his written report to the board, Wearne states that the FSA testing of retail chickens began in February and will continue over the next year. The plan is to test at least 4,000 chickens over the 12-month period from samples drawn from U.K. market shares by poultry companies.

“It also includes a proportion of non-houses (organic or free-range) birds to clarify whether and how Campylobacter levels differ from those on housed birds,” Wearne stated.

According to Wearne’s report to the board, FSA will release samples from its testing each time it completes around 1,000 samples, which is expected to take about three months. The first report is scheduled for June 2014.

“This will make this information available more promptly than typical surveys of this duration, although there will be come caveats around interpretation of an individual quarter’s report, which will make clear,” Wearne wrote.

Since FSA launched its campaign to knock down Campylobacter levels in chicken with a roundtable meeting with stakeholders last September, it has also persuaded major processors to share their in-plant testing results with FSA.

FSA collects monitoring data at the end of the slaughter line (post chill), and Wearne reported no evidence of significant change in that data.

“To deliver progress toward the joint industry/FSA target, industry from production to retail will need to take decisive action to implement additional interventions that deliver cumulative reductions in Campylobacter contamination along the food chain,” Wearne stated.

Wearne added that while this work is occurring, it is important that “unwarranted regulatory barriers do not impede progress.” He stated that FSA will work with food hygiene trainers, food handlers, and food businesses.

“There is risk that despite the best efforts of industry and government, the levels of Campylobacter on chicken and the burden of human illnesses that it results in are not reduced,” Wearne warned. He noted that they are counting on the interventions and other changes working quickly and being implemented across the U.K.’s poultry industry.

The U.K. has experienced more than 50,000 human Campylobacter illnesses during each of the last four years, and the last three months of 2013 are not yet included in the count. Illnesses levels continue to be lower in Northern Ireland than for England, Scotland, and Wales.

The campaign against Campylobacter, which FSA began with the major poultry companies, is being expanded to include retailers and consumers groups.

© Food Safety News