With the Food Standards Agency this week ‘naming and shaming’ supermarkets over campylobacter, the pressure is on for the industry to show it is serious about fighting the bug.
Campylobacter is the UK’s biggest cause of food poisoning and the FSA survey found 70% of supermarket chicken is contaminated with it, so action is clearly needed, though precisely what action is less clear. So what tools are available, and how effective are they?
At the moment, the three main technological interventions available are double-bagging or roast-in-bag packaging; the rapid chilling of chicken carcases; and the application of steam and ultrasound to carcases, known as SonoSteam.
Faccenda Foods, which announced in October it would be investing more than £1m to develop SonoSteam technology, claims the use of ultrasound optimises the effectiveness of steam to kill microorganisms on the skin and the internal cavity of chickens - with the whole process only lasting 1.5 seconds.
The technology was described by FSA CEO Catherine Brown as “another step in finding an effective intervention for the reduction of campylobacter levels in poultry meat.” Having said this, the process is only at trial stage and it will take some time before it is adopted commercially.
An alternative to SonoSteam is rapid surface chilling. Pioneered by Bernard Matthews (and later adopted by others), it frosts the chickens without freezing it - killing bacteria present on the surface.
Sainsbury’s has pledged to adopt the technology, which costs just “a few pence per bird” and can cut the level of campylobacter infections well below the FSA’s target level of 1,000 organisms per gram.
Despite this, however, there has been “limited adoption” of the technology by other retailers so far, with Bernard Matthews’ technical director, Jeremy Hall, noting a reluctance to pass on additional cost to shoppers.
Roast-in-bag packaging is being adopted more widely, with The Co-op Group announcing last week its entire range of chicken would be packaged this way from January. Aldi and Morrisons are set to follow, and others including Asda, Waitrose and Tesco already use the bags on key poultry lines.
The bags allow consumers to “prepare a chicken without touching it at all, as the packaging can be put straight into the oven,” says Faccenda Foods MD Andy Dawkins, adding “innovation in packaging and processing is key to mitigating the risk of campylobacter.”
New technology tends to get a lot of attention, but improvements in biosecurity are just as important, says David Clarke, CEO of the Red Tractor assurance scheme. “It’s a very difficult bacterium to control, and no one is sure how it gets into chicken sheds.”
Any benefits of packaging and processing innovations could be negated by basic failures in biosecurity, making it all the more important, adds the British Poultry Council’s (BPC) director of food policy, Richard Griffiths. “We think improvements in biosecurity throughout the supply chain can reduce outbreaks by up to 10%. Once we are at this level, technological advances such as roast-in-bag, SonoSteam or rapid chilling will have a much better chance of succeeding.”
Clarke says Red Tractor has been “working with the industry to improve biosecurity on poultry farms,” including introducing more hygiene barriers, sterilising clothes and boots, and the use of cleaner equipment. Other biosecurity measures involve new catching equipment, and developing antibacterial transporting crates that are easier to clean, according to Griffiths.
What is clear is none of these will work in isolation. Indeed, the approach highlighted by the FSA as best practice this week was Marks & Spencer’s five-point campylobacter plan with 2 Sisters, which includes measures across the supply chain.
Even so, there is no silver bullet. “It’s not a case of ‘if I do one plus one plus one, I sort it’,” says one industry source. “The outcome of interventions may be pretty random. A factory with low overall standards might be doing just as well as one that’s impeccable.”
There’s also significant work to be done on educating consumers about minimising risks of contamination when preparing poultry at home.
“People all over the world are trying to get to grips with this bacterium,” says Professor Chris Elliott. “It’s probably one of the most serious sources of food poisoning in the world, and there’s no quick fix.”