The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) last week outlined a refreshed strategy to reduce the number of people getting ill from campylobacter. The strategy will be discussed by the FSA Board at its meeting in Aberdeen, Scotland, on Sept. 11, 2013.

Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. It is considered to be responsible for about 460,000 cases of food poisoning, 22,000 hospitalizations and 110 deaths each year, and a significant proportion of these cases come from poultry. An FSA survey of chicken on sale in the UK (2007/8) indicated that 65 percent of chicken on sale in shops was contaminated with campylobacter.

Reducing cases of campylobacter is the FSA’s top food safety priority but monitoring carried out by the FSA shows there is no evidence of change in the proportion of the most highly contaminated chickens since 2008.

The Board paper, Revised Strategic Approach to Campylobacter Reduction, outlines how the FSA will:

  • improve the amount and quality of information about campylobacter levels that is available at all stages of the supply chain, to support and incentivise more effective risk management
  • address regulatory barriers to the adoption of safe and effective technological innovations for reducing campylobacter risks at all stages in the food supply chain
  • work with local government partners and others to raise awareness of campylobacter and ensure that food businesses using chilled chicken are aware of the risks and managing them appropriately
  • continue and increase our support to research programs into vaccination and other possible long-term interventions to address the issue
  • drive changes in behavior and approach, using tools including regulation if appropriate

The FSA expects industry to focus its actions to:

  • continue to improve the effectiveness of biosecurity measures on farms to prevent flock colonization with campylobacter
  • ensure that steps involved in slaughter and processing are effective in preventing contamination of carcasses
  • continue to work on packaging and other initiatives that reduce cross-contamination in the consumer and foodservice kitchen
  • develop and implement new interventions that reduce contamination when applied at production scale

Catherine Brown, FSA Chief Executive, said: "What we have proposed in this paper is a shift in culture and a refocusing of effort by both government and the food industry to tackle this persistent and serious problem. While we remain committed to joint working with industry we want to encourage and see producers, processors and retailers treat campylobacter reduction not simply as a technical issue but as a core business priority – and I see some encouraging signs of that happening.

"I feel that because this is a complex and difficult issue there has tended to be an acceptance that a high level of contamination will inevitably occur and that there’s little that can be done to prevent it," she continued. "The FSA doesn’t believe this is the case and this paper sets out how together we can make progress towards reducing the number of people who get ill from campylobacter. I am hosting a roundtable discussion with industry leaders on Monday, Sept. 2, where we will explore these ideas more fully."

Monitoring results in detail

FSA monitoring results show there is no evidence of a change in the proportion of most highly contaminated birds since 2008. Samples for this monitoring are taken from chickens at the end of processing (post-chill) in UK slaughterhouses and tested to determine the level of campylobacter present on the skin. Results are classified into 3 bands of contamination, which correspond to less than 100 colony forming units/gram (cfu/g), between 100 and 1000cfu/g and more than 1000cfu/g.

The table below shows how results from the first year of monitoring compare with the baseline year of 2008 and with the overall target for 2015. Further results received to date also show no change. The target, to reduce the percentage of chickens with the highest levels of contamination to 10 percent by 2015, was agreed and published in 2010 by the industry/government Joint Working Group on campylobacter.

  <100 cfu/g 100-1,000 cfu/g >1,000 cfu/g
Baseline - 2008 42% 31% 27%
Data Mar 12 - Feb 13
Change from baseline
No significant change
No significant change
No significant change
Target 2015 Improvement
(higher % than 2008)

The monitoring is due to continue until March 2015. Results will be updated annually.