25 Jul 2014

Two-thirds of chicken is contaminated – and demand for cheap food is to blame

Paul Wigley, University of Liverpool
More than two-thirds of chicken produced in the UK is contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, an investigation by The Guardian has revealed. Although the bug can be killed by proper cooking, it is estimated more than 300,000 people in the UK get diarrhoea from this bug every year. More than 100 people die as a consequence, and many more developing long term neurological and gastrointestinal problems.
Despite the burden of disease caused by the bacteria called Campylobacter jejuni, it has remained “under the radar”, unlike the scares caused by bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria in the 1980s and 1990s. The problem of Campylobacter is on the top of the agenda for poultry producers and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and a major concern for our major retailers, but The Guardian believes that not enough is being done.
The intensive nature of production, transport, slaughter and processing gives the bug many opportunities to spread through flocks and between carcasses. In a large chicken processing plant, 200,000 animals may be slaughtered and butchered each day.
If the first flock on the line that day has Campylobacter infection, then there is a good chance that many of the whole birds or chicken portions leaving the plant that day will be contaminated. Good hygiene, cleaning and following the correct procedures are vital in reducing these risks, but it would seem corners are being cut and errors are being made that impact directly on food safety.

How can the spread be controlled

Campylobacter jejuni is in your chicken. De Wood, Pooley, USDA, ARS, EMU., CC BY

Spread of Campylobacter is difficult to control in chicken production. Usually the bug survives in vast numbers in chickens' intestines. Although it can occasionally make chickens ill, it is normally carried with no observable effect on the bird.
The bug also spreads very quickly within a flock. It is not clear where Campylobacter comes from, though the practice of “thinning” is the single largest risk of a flock becoming infected. The practice involves selling lighter chicken for early slaughter to avoid overstocking, whilst retaining the remainder for slaughter at a greater weight.
The controls that have been successful in reducing Salmonella in chickens are less effective in reducing Campylobacter. There is also no vaccine available.
Some methods of controls are under investigation by FSA and the poultry industry. These include blast chilling, lactic acid treatment and bacteriophage treatment, but they are costly and in most cases of questionable efficacy.
Ultimately it is a difficult balance between providing cheap and nutritious food and maintaining food safety for an industry that operates on small margins. There is no specific legislation for Campylobacter control, such as there is for Salmonella control. Introducing any legislation will increase cost, which could push production overseas where chicken can be produced even more cheaply but where standards in hygiene and animal welfare are lower.

Longer-term solutions

Ultimately on-farm controls, such as vaccines or breeding of birds that are more resistant to Campylobacter infection, are likely to be more successful. However, these are some way off and need greater support from government and industry. The focus on quick solutions to meet FSA targets on reduction of carcass contamination has to an extent ignored long-term solutions.
Another worry is that emerging variants of Campylobacter are more likely to leave the gut and contaminate the liver or muscle. This would make controls after slaughtering even less effective as they would be unable to penetrate into the organs.
The question I am often asked is: “Do you eat chicken?” The answer is “yes … but I ensure that any chicken I eat is thoroughly cooked and I always practice good hygiene within the kitchen to avoid cross contamination”. At present this is the best, and perhaps, the only thing that can be done to reduce the risk of Campylobacter infection.
The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

1 Jul 2014

Chicken Fair Run

Elli Wright tells us about her recent visit to the British Pig and Poultry Fair.

The British Pig and Poultry Fair was held on 13-14 May in Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire and is the only dedicated pig and poultry industry event in the UK. It brings together people from all areas of the farming community and aims to help pig and poultry producers grow their businesses. The key focus points of the fair include promoting on-farm energy production and using the media to promote the industry.

Meeting a giant chicken at the Fair!

My interest in the poultry industry stems from my current research project investigating the ecology of a bacterium called Campylobacter on a poultry farm. Chickens become colonised with Campylobacter during rearing. Some of you might have been infected with Campylobacter if you have ever eaten undercooked poultry meat; in particular, chicken liver pate is a frequent culprit. Campylobacter infection will leave you feeling nauseous and give you diarrhoea; it is the commonest cause of food poisoning in the UK. Therefore, the poultry industry is working closely with researchers to understand Campylobacter ecology on poultry farms, in order to try to reduce the colonisation of broilers. As a research group, good kitchen hygiene is an important message we like to talk to the public about. It has been the focus of our past public engagement events, including Healthy Tums,Happy Bums in 2013, and will be central to our upcoming event A Twisted Bug’s Life in the Gut at the BBSRC Great British Bioscience Festival in London (13-16 November 2014) and World Museum Liverpool (21 September 2014).

I was invited to attend the Pig and Poultry fair by collaborators in the University of Manchester. They were showcasing a hazard perception test they had developed (which will be presented at A Twisted Bug’s Life) to highlight people’s understanding of kitchen hygiene and to teach members of the farming community some kitchen hygiene rules.

Travelling to Stoneleigh Park on the 14 May proved to be a mammoth task, as a consequence of 6,000 chickens re-enacting the film Chicken Run on the M62 - rather ironic considering I was on my way to the Pig and Poultry Fair! On arrival at Stoneleigh Park, I found the National Farmers Union (NFU) stand, which would be my home for the day.

There were plenty of opportunities for people to chat and mingle

During the day, we had a good number of people trying the hazard perception test including family farmers, exhibitors and NFU workers. A competitive spirit was not too far away. I had the opportunity to walk around the Fair and see some of the exhibits and stalls (hosted by a range of organisations including the Animal Health & Veterinary Laboratories Agency, Bayer, BPEX and the British Egg Industry Council). I even had a caricature of myself drawn onto a polystyrene egg at the MSD Animal Health Stand.

My egg caricature!
I had a fun day meeting new people and, in particular, learning the ropes of the hazard perception test in readiness for A Twisted Bug’s Life in the Gut. Hopefully you will visit us at World Museum Liverpool on Saturday 20 September 2014 where you can take part in the hazard perception test and learn about our research in more detail.

Dr Elli Wright is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Infection and Global Health. Her current work forms part of the ENIGMA Project -  a large collaborative programme of Campylobacter research taking place across the UK.

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