Common food poisoning cause targeted

Raw chicken is prepared for food FSA research suggests about two-thirds of shop chicken is contaminated with campylobacter

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A strategy aimed at cutting the number of people getting ill from Britain's most common cause of food poisoning has been launched by an industry watchdog.

Every year campylobacter is linked to about 460,000 poisoning cases, 22,000 hospital admissions and 110 deaths.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it would improve information about levels of campylobacter in the supply chain.

FSA chief executive Catherine Brown said she wanted to see a "shift in culture" in the food industry.

Ms Brown told Radio 4's Today programme that, in practice, the strategy would include measures such as improving biosecurity on farms to stop bugs getting into chickens, improving production facilities, more regular testing and improvements to packaging and advice to consumers.

"Yes, farmers need to work really hard on improving biosecurity, but, just as much, I would say that producers, slaughterhouses and retailers have a really important role to play," she said.

The strategy will be on the agenda when the FSA board meets in Aberdeen later.

A significant proportion of cases involving campylobacter come from poultry.

Campylobacter

Campylobacter
  • It is the most commonly reported bacterial intestinal infection in England and Wales
  • It causes severe diarrhoea (sometimes with blood) and cramping abdominal pain
  • Often, the cause is undercooked meat, especially chicken or other poultry
  • It can also be caught from unpasteurised milk and contaminated water
  • In most instances, the source is never found
  • Most people recover within a few days without any specific treatment, just plenty of fluids
  • Doctors may prescribe antibiotics
  • Simple food hygiene can prevent infection - have clean hands, cook all meat thoroughly and wash any kitchen surfaces that have come into contact with raw meat

Source: BBC Health

'Persistent problem'

An FSA survey five years ago suggested that 65% of chicken on sale in shops was contaminated with the bacteria.

While the bacteria is not a risk when chicken is cooked properly, cross-contamination can occur prior to cooking, for example if a person does not wash their hands after handling chicken.

Monitoring by the FSA suggests there has been no change in the proportion of the most highly contaminated chickens since 2008.

The FSA said it would ensure food businesses using chilled chicken were aware of the risks.

Research programmes into vaccination and other long-term measures would be supported by the agency.

The FSA would also use regulation if necessary to change behaviour in the industry, it said.

Ms Brown 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."

Earlier this year, a BBC investigation revealed that cases of campylobacter were increasing.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) said at the time it was doing everything it could to reduce the risk of infection.

On Wednesday, its chief executive, Andrew Large, told BBC Breakfast the council, the FSA and retailers had formed a joint working group on campylobacter.

"There are a lot of interventions that are currently being trialled," he added.

The effects of campylobacter poisoning for most people are severe diarrhoea and vomiting.

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