ALMOST three-quarters of shop-bought chickens are contaminated with food poisoning bug campylobacter, a major investigation by the Food Standards Agency has found.
The authority conducted a year-long study into the presence of the bacteria on raw chickens – which is the biggest cause of food poisoning in the UK, affecting 280,000 people a year.
Almost one in five chickens tested positive for campylobacter within the highest band of contamination, while 7 per cent of packaging tested positive for the presence of the bug.
The FSA said it would run the survey for a second year in a bid to reduce the presence of the bug, which can be killed through proper cooking and infection avoided by following good hygiene practice in the kitchen.
Asda performed worst, as the only major retailer which tested positive for a higher incidence of chicken that is contaminated by campylobacter at the highest level compared to the industry average, while Tesco was the only one which had a lower incidence of chicken contaminated with campylobacter at the highest level.
However, none of the retailers achieved the joint industry target for reducing campylobacter.
Professor Mark Stevens, chair of microbial pathogenesis at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute, said that the levels of the bug found in chicken had not improved since they were checked in 2007-8.
“In the interim, hundreds of thousands of laboratory-confirmed cases of human campylobacteriosis have been recorded, with many more undiagnosed in the community,” he said.
“Such infections exert a substantial burden on society and the economy. Poultry are unequivocally a key reservoir of human infections and the latest survey serves to highlight the importance of ongoing research to control campylobacter at source.”
Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd said: “It beggars belief that nearly three-quarters of chickens on sale in supermarkets are still infected with this potentially deadly bug and that no retailers have met the FSA’s target.”
Asda also had the biggest proportion of packaging with the highest levels of campylobacter contamination, while Marks & Spencer reported the lowest at just 2.9 per cent.
Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, said: “We are going to run this survey for a second year and will again look at campylobacter levels on chickens at retail sale.”
A group of retailers, including Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, the Co-op and Waitrose, today published the results of their recently implemented campylobacter reduction plans, showing “significant” decreases in the incidence of campylobacter on their raw whole chickens.
The tests were carried out on more recent samples than those taken from the FSA survey samples, with some targeted to demonstrate the effect of particular interventions.
Mr Wearne added: “I am absolutely delighted to see the really encouraging results from these four supermarkets and their suppliers. They are making a real difference to public health, helping to cut down on the estimated 280,000 people who get ill from campylobacter each year.
“As we have always said, if you are prepared to work across the food chain to reduce the spread of this bug then you will get results.”
The FSA has held a campaign which encourages people to implement good kitchen hygiene in a bid to avoid becoming ill from the bug – including not washing raw chicken and ensuring that chicken is hot all the way through before serving.