None of the top nine retailers in the United Kingdom reported Campylobacter in chicken test results near the FSA limit in the first three months of this year.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) maximum acceptable level is 7 percent of birds with more than 1,000 colony forming units per gram (CFU/g) of Campylobacter.
Tesco was the supermarket that recorded the worst contaminated chicken results with 4 percent of 300 samples above 1,000 CFU/g in the first quarter of 2021 (1Q) which was down from 6 percent in 4Q 2020.
Sainsbury’s performed much better in the latest set of figures covering January to March with around 2 percent of chickens sampled above 1,000 CFU/g compared to 7 percent in 4Q 2020.
Asda reported 1.3 percent tested positive for the highest level of contamination in the latest quarter compared to 1.8 percent in the previous three months.
Other retailer results
Campylobacter is the most common cause of bacterial food poisoning in the UK and the dose needed to make people sick can be as low as a few hundred cells.
Until the second quarter of 2019, the FSA published data from these retailers on Campylobacter in fresh shop-bought UK-produced chickens.
For Marks and Spencer, 2 percent were in the maximum category in January, 3 percent in February and 4 percent in March based on a sample of 292 chickens randomly taken from store shelves across the UK. It is the only retailer to report data for the 100 to 1,000 CFU/g category. A total of 15 percent of samples were in this bracket in February and 17 percent in March.
Co-op results show 1.8 percent of chickens sampled had contamination at levels greater than 1,000 CFU/g compared to 0.9 percent in the previous quarter. Lidl recorded about 1.5 percent of birds in the highest category which is down from 2.5 percent in 4Q 2020.
No chickens sold at Morrisons had the highest level of contamination from 112 birds tested. The figure was 0.8 percent in the last set of results. Levels at Waitrose and Aldi for the quarter stayed at zero percent in the above 1,000 CFU/g category.
Worse situation for other shops
Meanwhile, research published by the FSA has found the percentage of chicken sold at smaller retailers contaminated at more than 1,000 CFU/g is still higher than samples from supermarkets.
The UK-wide survey looked at the levels of Campylobacter on whole fresh retail chickens on sale in farm shops and markets, butchers and smaller chains such as Iceland, McColl’s, Budgens, Nisa, Costcutter, and One Stop.
A total of 1,009 fresh raw chickens were collected from August 2018 to July 2019. Campylobacter was detected in 55.8 percent of chicken skin samples and 10.8 percent of them were above 1,000 CFU/g of chicken skin. The highest result was 200,000 CFU/g of skin.
In the previous year’s survey, Campylobacter was detected in 70 percent of 207 samples and 15 percent were above the highest level.
Seasonality, production sites and AMR
In 2018 and 2019, the percentage of samples with more than 1,000 CFU/g was significantly higher in May, June and July than November to April.
Comparing production plant approval codes showed significant differences in the percentages of chicken samples with more than 1,000 CFU/g, ranging from 0 to 28.1 percent. This could reflect differences in slaughterhouse hygiene practices or in the proportion of highly contaminated flocks they receive, according to the report.
There was no difference in the percentage of highly contaminated samples between chickens with access to range such as free-range and organic birds and those reared with no access to range.
Campylobacter jejuni was isolated from most positive samples while Campylobacter coli was identified in almost a quarter. A combination of both types was found in 5 percent of samples.
Resistance to ciprofloxacin was detected in 185 isolates of Campylobacter jejuni and 49 of Campylobacter coli; while 220 isolates of Campylobacter jejuni and 73 of Campylobacter coli were resistant to tetracycline.
“Considering that the percentage of fresh, whole chicken from non-major retailer stores in the UK that are highly contaminated with Campylobacter continues to be above that in samples from major retailers more action including consideration of interventions such as improved biosecurity and slaughterhouse measures is needed to achieve better control of Campylobacter for this section of the industry,” according to the report.
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