About 65 percent of raw chicken in the United Kingdom is contaminated with Campylobacter, a bacteria that sickens about 300,000 people each year, and the UK’s Food Standards Agency has made reducing those levels its top priority, its chief scientist said yesterday.

Andrew Wadge highlighted the FSA’s focus on science-based food safety and its emphasis on reducing foodborne Campylobacter infections as he released the agency’s fourth annual Chief Scientist report.

The report, which covers work from April 2009 to March 2010, “emphasizes the value of working closely with our partners and sharing good information to develop a high quality evidence base, so we can make a real impact on public health problems,” Wadge said.

Focus on Microbial Food Safety and Foodborne Pathogens

Campylobacteriosis is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the UK, causing 80 percent of illnesses associated with the five major pathogens monitored by the FSA.  Of the other major pathogens monitored, Clostridium perfringens causes 13 percent, Salmonella causes 7 percent, and E. coli O157 and Listeria monocytogenes cause 0.3 and 0.1 percent, respectively.  

Campylobacter causes 21 percent of deaths associated with the five major pathogens, while Listeria causes 35 percent of deaths; Salmonella causes 22 percent; Clostridium perfringens 15 percent; and E. coli 7 percent.

Because poultry is the leading cause of Campylobacter infection, the FSA has implemented a program to work with the entire poultry industry supply chain to identify and develop interventions to prevent Campylobacter contamination in chicken flocks and on carcasses.  The agency will also conduct a public education campaign to help consumers understand the risks associated with raw or under-cooked poultry and other foods that have the potential to be contaminated with Campylobacter.

Last year’s FSA annual Chief Scientist report focused on an increase in listeriosis among people over 60.  The FSA conducted public education campaigns to inform consumers about the risks associated with the consumption of various food products, particularly chilled, ready-to-eat foods.  “The advice was not to use food past its ‘use by’ date, to make sure their fridges are between 0 C and 5 C, and to follow storage instructions on food labels.”

The FSA will use information gained in its research on listeriosis prevention to educate consumers in ways to prevent campylobacteriosis.  The focus will be on people’s actual behavior when handling food: the way they handle food rather than their attitudes toward how they believe food should be handled.

Because Listeria is responsible for the highest number of deaths in the UK, the listeriosis education campaign is an ongoing effort by the FSA.

  “The Agency is continuing to extend and refine its work to control Listeria monocytogenes. During 2010 we will develop a risk management programme that aims to reduce listeriosis, particularly within high-risk groups, such as people over 60.  Central to the programme will be development of a targeted and effective communication strategy to ensure consumers are aware of the risk associated with Listeria and know how to avoid it.”

The FSA will also continue its work with the food supply chain to prevent Listeria contamination.

In addition to reducing illness associated with microbial foodborne contaminants, the FSA is working toward consolidating local food safety inspection rating systems into an overall standard system.  “The rating given to each business will reflect the level of compliance with food hygiene legislation found at the time of inspection. There are six different ratings – the top rating means a very good level of compliance. These ratings will be made available via an online search facility, and businesses will be encouraged to display them at their premises.”

Meat Safety

Beyond reducing the risks of Campylobacter and Listeria contamination, the FSA is working to improve its meat inspection system in an effort to move to a more science-based model of inspection.  The agency states in the report:

“Official meat controls, particularly post-mortem inspections of meat, are based on a traditional inspection approach that was developed more than a hundred years ago to tackle the public health concerns of that era, such as parasites and defects visible to the naked eye. Today, the main causes of foodborne disease are microbiological, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli, which cannot be tackled using traditional inspection methods.”

The FSA is researching various areas of meat safety to be addressed, including post-mortem inspections, use of inspection data and food chain information, analysis of roles of veterinarians and inspectors, requirements for outdoor pig processing, and ante-mortem inspection of animals and poultry.  

Beyond Microbes

The report also includes information about the FSA’s efforts to reduce other contaminants in food, such as acrylamide and furan, which are chemical substances that are naturally produced in food during manufacturing, cooking, packaging and other processing activities.  

Other topics covered include nutrition, obesity, food labeling, and the FSA salt campaign as well as information about how the FSA has changed its procedures for commissioning research to support strategic goals; its work to improve science governance in the agency to ensure scientific advisory committee members provide independent scientific advice, and the FSA’s work to monitor and prepare for emerging risks.

The full FSA report can be found on the agency’s Website.