By David Burrows
Campylobacter figures are showing rapid improvement, with significantly reduced infection rates. So what’s the secret?
The poultry sector could do with a shot of good news and last month two doses arrived. Data released by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed that 7% of chicken tested positive for campylobacter within the highest band of contamination – which is down from the 12% for the same period (August to December) in 2015 and 20% back in 2014. “We can reasonably say the work that we and the food industry have done from farm to fork has given us this really positive result for public health,” said the regulator’s chairman Heather Hancock. Indeed, the industry had met its 10% target but, perhaps more importantly, fewer people seem to be getting sick: research released by Public Health England in February showed that infections among consumers have fallen to their lowest levels since 2008.
“We’re really pleased with the direction of travel and the decline in the number of human cases is great news,” says Kevin Hargin, who heads up the FSA’s foodborne disease control team. Even the Daily Mail – which for the past few months has been “examining the terrifying truth about British meat” – couldn’t put a negative spin on things. “It is impossible to know whether there is a direct correlation between the action taken by the FSA and the fall in human victims, but it seems likely,” noted the paper’s consumer affairs editor Sean Poulter.
So what have been the key factors in delivering these results? How much time, money and effort have been invested and which parts of the chain have seen the biggest improvements? And is there a risk that now the target’s been met, producers, processors and retailers will allow campylobacter to slide off the radar?
Campylobacter has been the FSA’s top priority for a number of years now – and it’s easy to see why. The bug is thought to be responsible for around 500,000 cases of food poisoning a year and 100 deaths. About four in five cases of campylobacter poisoning on these shores come from contaminated poultry. In 2009 the FSA set about tackling the issue with new targets to cut the percentage of the most heavily contaminated chickens (those with 1,000 colony forming units per gram, cfu/g) at the end of the slaughter process from 27% in 2008 to 19% in 2013 and 10% by the end of 2015.
Things didn’t quite go to plan. Money was thrown at rapid surface chilling, for instance, which at one stage looked to be a panacea but “didn’t quite produce the goods”, says Hargin. Indeed, at the mid-point – and despite considerable investment from industry and government – more people were getting ill, not fewer. “We need to reassess our approach,” noted the FSA’s director of food safety in a paper presented to the board in September 2013. Looking back, some feel there was a degree of naivety in terms of what could be achieved given how little was known about the pathogen, or indeed still is.
Paul Wigley is an immunologist at the Institute of Infection and Global Health based at the University of Liverpool. He believes the FSA targets were incredibly unrealistic. “We don’t know how campylobacter behaves in the chicken or why people get sick from it,” he explains. To make matters worse it boasts what’s called hypervariability in its genetic makeup – in other words it can change quickly in order to survive, which makes developing vaccines for certain strains “very challenging”. Add in the fact that campylobacter is naturally occurring, survives in chicken intestines in vast numbers, doesn’t always affect the birds and spreads like wildfire through a flock and it was always going to be a tough nut to crack.
Regulation could have been an option, as it was for salmonella. However, that risked pushing production overseas where standards in hygiene and animal welfare can be even lower (see ‘Chlorine baths won’t wash’). Instead, the FSA introduced a competitive element: regular surveys were to be published showing campylobacter levels on supermarket chicken. The retailers were horrified at the prospect but it seems to have worked: within two years the first signs of “tangible progress” were reported and last month the FSA afforded all those involved a pat on the back. Hancock commended the efforts of the larger retailers and the major processing plants: “They have invested a lot of effort and money into interventions to tackle the problem,” she said.
Indeed, 2 Sisters launched a £10m initiative, part funded by its retail partners, to cut levels of campylobacter: there has been farmer training, covering barrier security, changing footwear and clothing between sheds, new foot drips and a ban on ‘thinning’ (which for some it’s the biggest individual problem for a flock testing positive). More recently, its suppliers have been given testing kits so the company can track levels. “No other processor has gone this far,” the company’s website boasts. And yet: the group won’t divulge any details of the progress made since that July 2015 announcement, declining requests for an interview or a written update. It wasn’t the only one: Cargill and Cranswick both battened down the hatches. Only Faccenda offered an update (see Industry Insight).
Race to the top
So, why the reticence? In a word: competition. By introducing a competitive element (the publishing of results) the FSA has encouraged many of the big players to change their approaches in order to reduce campylobacter and climb the table. But there’s been a price to pay. “It’s driven progress but what we’ve lost is collaboration,” admits Richard Griffiths, chief executive at the British Poultry Council. Duncan Priestner, chair of the NFU poultry board, tends to agree: there’s less information that comes out since the regulator changed tack, he says.
Hargin defends the approach, though (it’s worth noting the FSA’s table is displayed in alphabetical order rather than performance-based). He suggests the industry working together has “gelled the whole process” and there has been “a lot of data and information sharing” – especially amongst the processors. The supermarkets are a different story – and that’s nothing new, he adds. Retailers are “often reluctant to share what they are doing”, he explains, and as approaches to tackle the issue become more refined those that have invested big sums are even “less liable to share”.
It’s hard to argue with the results posted by the big firms: among the nine retailers with the highest market share, just 5% of chickens tested positive for campylobacter within the highest band of contamination. The range is pretty wide though: from 2.6% in Sainsbury’s chickens to 9.5% in M&S ones. Still, some observers feel this is the point at which the large companies are “left to get on with it”, and that will put smaller businesses under the microscope.
The FSA confirmed last month that it will turn its attention to the smaller retailers and processors that “generally haven’t met targets”. Indeed, the ‘others’ column in the latest table shows one in five skin samples had levels in excess of 1,000 cfu/g. Hargin’s team is working with a group of around 17 of the “larger small processors: to help them develop action plans and identify where they can optimise their systems to limit levels of campylobacter. “We’re looking for the most effective solutions for minimal cost,” he explains.
There will also likely be renewed attention on the production end of the chain where progress is harder to track. BPC’s Griffiths admits there aren’t the game-changing techniques available to producers that processors have enjoyed – improvements will be more incremental and over a longer period of time. With a vaccine some way off, many farmers have focused on enhanced biosecurity. “We’re doing everything we can to get the figures down and protect our marketplace,” explains Charles Bourns, who produces broilers for Hook 2 Sisters in south Gloucestershire.
Reducing even the highest band of contamination down to nothing is perhaps unrealistic but producers, processors and retailers can’t afford to let things slip (especially during the current outbreak of avian ‘flu). Some 55% of chicken is still testing positive for campylobacter (10cfu/g or more) and despite the 17% fall in lab cases, half a million people are still likely to be falling sick every year (though good kitchen hygiene is a significant factor of course). It’s also worth noting that a similar, if not larger, fall in human cases was recorded in 2006 before numbers increased again. “It’s too soon to be certain that there has been a real decrease in human cases, explains Tom Humphrey, professor of bacteriology and food safety at Swansea University medical school. “If the effort is maintained we may well see a significant and sustained fall.”
Chlorine baths won’t wash
US farmers can use a chemical soak to help control levels of salmonella and other bacteria, including campylobacter. But ‘chlorine chickens’ are currently banned from the EU due to safety concerns, which led to them becoming synonymous with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
That deal appears doomed, but President Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May seem keen on a quick post-Brexit pact. This has raised fresh fears about cheap chemical-washed chicken – and perhaps for good reason. The former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg recently revealed comments made to him by the former US vice-president, Joe Biden: “He said to me very unsentimentally […] ‘We are not going to sign anything that the chicken farmers of Delaware don’t like!’.”
At his City Food Lecture last month, Chris Elliott claimed that the market could be flooded with food people don’t want. “Many commentators would say these products [like bleached chicken]are all as safe as those produced and sold in Europe. However, what is very clear is that in all surveys undertaken over recent years the UK public does not want any of them,” the founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast warned.
Indeed, research published in 2014 by scientists at the Universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews assessed consumer acceptability of various interventions designed to reduce campylobacter in the poultry chain. Better on-farm practices were top of the list with 95% acceptability. At the other end of the scale sat chemical washing (10%); in fact, more than half the participants said the approach would never be ok.
Industry insight – David Keeble, Feccenda technical director
“Putting a price on efforts to reduce campylobacter is difficult. Our implementation of SonoSteam is a multi-million pound investment on its own and, added to that, there are further programmes relating to farms, transport and packaging that all carry significant cost – either in time, resource or capital.
“If you look at what the industry has done, whether it’s the development of existing practices, investment in new technologies or developments in packaging, the benefits extend beyond a single issue. The true result of the various industry programmes is higher standards across the board.
“I don’t think there’s a danger that campylobacter will slip off the radar, but there is a question as to where focus should turn next. Much of what we’ve implemented in recent years is now enshrined in everyday working practices, and our aim is to reduce levels further – and we continue to investigate and invest on this basis.