Some critics say that the health of British families is being put at risk because an ongoing retail “price war” on chicken is keeping investments from being made to help reduce Campylobacter contamination. Professor Chris Elliott, who conducted the British government’s inquiry into the 2013 horse meat scandal, says that U.K. chicken farms could limit the Campylobacter incidence by not “thinning” their flocks, a practice which he says would cost about 10 pence per bird (about 15 cents). Chicken_406x250However, Elliott, who is chair of Food Safety and Microbiology at Queen’s University Belfast, says that supermarkets won’t pay the price of doing so, resulting in greater risk to consumers. “Thinning” involves poultry workers going into chicken sheds and removing larger birds that have reached slaughter weight. They do this to be able to keep more birds per shed and to get more uniform sizes of the remaining birds. Research has indicated that each time the workers go in, any Campylobacter present in the flock and in bird feces is spread to other healthy birds and thereby raises the number of contaminated birds sent to market. “Zero thinning is certainly one of the solutions,” Elliott says. “It would cost 10p more per carcass … but there is a great reluctance of retailers to pass any cost on now because they are engaged in the middle of a price war.” Some U.K. retailers have stopped their chicken suppliers from thinning flocks, while others are studying whether ending the practice would be beneficial. Recent studies by the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency found that 73 percent of whole chickens sold in Britain’s major supermarkets are contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria. Nineteen percent of chickens tested above the highest category of contamination levels (more than 1,000 colony-forming units per gram), while 7 percent of packages also tested positive for Campylobacter. Campylobacter is the major cause of food poisoning in the UK, causing an estimated 280,000 human cases a year and around 100 deaths. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the numbers at 1.3 million cases each year and 76 deaths.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)