The mega-supermarket chain Tesco has reported 9 percent of chickens tested in the first quarter this year had the highest level of Campylobacter contamination while Asda recorded 9.2 percent.

This is above the Food Standards Agency (FSA) target of 7 percent and Tesco’s own benchmark of 5 percent of birds with more than 1,000 colony forming units per gram (cfu/g) of Campylobacter.

Tesco data shows 9 percent of 132 samples from January to March had the top level of contamination. It is double the percentage reported in the previous quarter.

“The safety and quality of the food we sell remains our top priority. The results this quarter were affected by a reduced sample size compared to previous tests, and we believe we’ll see levels return to within our expected range in future,” said a Tesco spokesperson.

Another large retailer, Asda, did not initially provide 1Q figures for 2020 or respond to a request for comment. However, it has now published data showing 9.2 percent of chickens were above the top level of contamination.

Overall picture
An FSA spokesman said reducing levels of Campylobacter is a priority for the agency and it expects industry to make progress.

“We are aware of a slightly higher average percentage for the nine major retailers in the above 1,000 cfu/g category for Q1 2020 as compared with recent quarters. We are currently investigating various possible reasons for this. However, current levels remain low and the vast majority of retailers continue to collect results below the FSA target of 7 percent,” he told Food Safety News.

“We continue to have an open dialogue with retailers and are encouraged to see that levels remain low for the vast majority of retailers. Any results which could indicate an increase in contamination will be thoroughly explored by the FSA alongside the retailer involved.”

Grocery chain Sainsbury’s reported 3 percent of chickens sampled were above the 1,000 cfu/g category from January to March this year. The Morrisons chain had 2.7 percent and Aldi had 2.8 percent.

Based on 333 samples of chickens sold at Marks and Spencer from January to March 6 percent were above 1,000 cfu/g in January, 3 percent in February and 1 percent in March.

Lidl recorded 5.5 percent of birds in the highest contamination category in 1Q 2020 while the figure for Co-op was 1.8 percent and zero for Waitrose and Partners.

“The key to our good results continue to be the incredible hard work of our farmers and suppliers combined with our own rigorous data gathering and analysis, surveying chicken both at the factory and on supermarket shelves,” said a Waitrose & Partners spokesperson.

“Our testing regime is rigorous and because we know that the prevalence of Campylobacter is reduced over a product’s shelf life, we have ensured our sampling is random and have adhered throughout the survey to the FSA testing protocol. These results demonstrate the robustness of our testing procedures and we are confident our approach to tackling Campylobacter is consistently effective.”

No more quarterly analysis from FSA
FSA used to compile figures from the top food retailers on Campylobacter results for fresh shop-bought UK-produced chickens but stopped doing this after the second quarter of 2019.

“Following a review of the reporting arrangement in late 2019, the FSA decided that commenting on results over a longer period would be more beneficial and therefore would no longer comment on or publish quarterly data for major retailers on our website. The retailers continue to publish their own data on their respective websites. The FSA monitors these results and will be commenting on them in its annual update to the board on Campylobacter, due later this year,” said the spokesman.

In the third quarter of July to September and the fourth from October to December, no retailers reported above the FSA 7 percent level for the percentage of chickens positive for Campylobacter with more than 1,000 cfu/g.

FSA also used to provide a breakdown of the contamination levels at 100-1,000 cfu/g, 10-99 cfu/g and a cfu/g less than 10.

Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the U.K. and the infectious dose can be as low as a few hundred cells.

The FSA spokesman said limited data suggests that an infectious dose of Campylobacter may be as low as 100 organisms.

“However, levels between 100 and 1,000 cfu/g in raw chicken are unlikely to translate to an infectious dose if the chicken is thoroughly cooked and good hygiene practices are followed throughout preparation – such as handwashing and the use of separate utensils to avoid cross-contamination. Major retailers remain committed to the open sharing of data with the FSA and we continue to monitor the situation for all levels, not just over 1,000 cfu/g,” he said.

  • This article was updated on June 26 to reflect updated Asda figures for 1Q 2020.

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