Despite the high cost of human Campylobacter infections in the UK, estimated to exceed £1bn annually, control of contamination in chicken production has not improved. The FSA’s decision to ‘name and shame’ UK supermarket retailers over Campylobacter levels has put retailers and poultry processors under pressure to find a solution. The options available are limited by an inadequate understanding of Campylobacter pathogenicity, its impact on bird health and welfare, and regulations that ban the use of some effective control techniques.

Unlike Salmonella there is no quick-fix vaccination to address Campylobacter. However there are numerous interventions that can be utilised, such as improving biosecurity, rapid chilling or surface steaming. Unfortunately the evidence of effectiveness is mixed and there is no accepted ‘best practice’ for any combination of measures which should be applied.

Looking globally there are some techniques, routinely used in other parts of the world, that might provide an effective way to reduce Campylobacter levels on chicken skin and in internal cavities. In the United States birds are ‘disinfected’ at the end of processing by application of a chlorine based solution. But at present this technique is banned in the European Union, despite evidence that it is effective and does not pose a risk to consumers. Whilst EU regulations have an emphasis on ‘on-farm’ hygiene controls, removing the ban on chlorine washes would not take away from such efforts. It could provide food businesses with access to a proven technique to protect public health. The use of chlorine as a ‘disinfectant’ is permitted for other food products, such as bagged salad leaves and potable water, why not for chicken? Given that one of the overarching objectives of EU official control regulations is that ‘feed and food should be safe and wholesome’, the ban on a safe and effective technique proven to protect public health seems incongruous.

Campylobacter has been traditionally understood as a public health issue that has no or minimal impact on bird health and weight gain. However new research suggests that it does in fact have an adverse impact and is likely to cost the UK industry millions of pounds each year. The evidence suggests that Campylobacter-positive flocks have poorer health and welfare, demonstrating symptoms such as diarrhoea, skin lesions, pododermatitis and hock marks. Positive flocks are also slower to gain weight. The evidence deserves wider understanding as it supports the case for chicken production that does a better job of balancing economic sustainability and good bird health. The results of FSA sampling suggest that this is something industry has yet to achieve.

It is clear that there is no one panacea to reduce Campylobacter levels, and that there are limitations on known techniques that can deliver improvement. However new knowledge and new possibilities are emerging. Protecting consumers from harm will require scientists, farmers, food businesses and regulators to work closely together to share emerging information, eliminate unnecessary barriers and increase the tempo of action if a real difference is to be made.

Jenny Morris, head of The Institute for Food Safety, Integrity and Protection (TIFSIP)