FSA release new Campylobacter data

FSA has released the latest data from their Campylobacter retail survey.

This 12-month survey, running from February 2014 to February 2015, is looking at the prevalence and levels of Campylobacter contamination on fresh whole chilled chickens and their packaging. The survey is testing 4,000 samples of whole chickens bought from UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers.

Data from the first two quarters of the survey, which included the testing of 1,995 samples of fresh whole chilled chickens, was published last November. This report gave details of contamination levels in the main supermarkets: while Asda topped the list with 78% of chicken samples being positive for Campylobacter, the lowest on the list (Tesco) did not fare much better with 64% positive.

The cumulative results published by the FSA  combine the first three quarters, and confirms the previous report, with >70% of chicken samples positive for Campylobacter. With 68% samples positive, Tesco scores again best, and Asda with 79% comes out worst. More importantly is that 12-31% of samples has the highest level of Campylobacter contamination, as these are the ones more likely to cause food poisoning. Also, almost 7% of packaging samples were positive for Campylobacter,  which is a concern as may expose consumers to infection, although most positive samples had a very low level of contamination. Finally, as these data show the average of the whole 9 month period of testing, it is too early to draw conclusions with regard to the different retailers though, and cannot show whether new intervention and prevention methods under investigation are effective.

With the annual incidence of Campylobacter up to half a million cases per year in the UK, and between 2 and 20 million in the EU, it represents an important public health and economic problem. Funders, regulators, industry, retailers and scientists continue to work together to address this problem. However, this is a problem without quick fixes or easy solutions, and all partners involved want to solve it. Solutions need to be long-term, economically viable and robust.

At the Institute of Food Research, we are doing scientific research on Campylobacter to support the food industry with preventing the introduction and spread of Campylobacter in the food chain, and to support the regulatory bodies by helping them to assess which sources of Campylobacter are giving problems, and whether we can predict future trends in Campylobacter -related food safety. This research is led by Dr Arnoud van Vliet.

False coloured scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of Campylobacter cells attached to chicken juice on a glass slide. Image: Louise Salt, IFR with colouring by Kathryn Cross, IFROur work with industrial partners focuses on how Campylobacter can survive in the poultry processing environment. Once the bacterium leaves the gut of the poultry during processing, it needs to survive disinfection treatment, and the general stresses of the outside world. One of the unsolved puzzles about Campylobacter is that it is easy to kill in the laboratory, but surprisingly difficult to remove from the food chain. One of the goals of the Campylobacter research in the Gut Health and Food Safety programme is to gain a better understanding of how Campylobacter grows and survives outside of the chicken gut, and in order to do this this we have been looking at its ability to form biofilms on surfaces. We have shown that Campylobacter can use biofilms for survival, where the bacteria are encapsulated in a slime layer protecting them against cleaning regimens. The Campylobacters can use organic materials generated during slaughter of chickens to bind to surfaces. Our work on biofilms is now progressing to the stage where we are trying to prevent the bacteria forming the biofilm, and by providing advice on how cleaning regimens can be modified to target the already existing biofilms.

A second part of IFR Campylobacter science is aimed at tracing Campylobacter. We use DNA sequencing to get all the information from the Campylobacter chromosome, and use this to make a genetic “fingerprint” of the Campylobacters from different sources. This information can be very helpful to regulatory bodies, both in analysing where current infections come from, and hopefully to predict where future problems may occur. This will aid the resilience of the food chain, and assist regulators, industry and consumers in the ongoing fight for ensuring food safety.

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