Campylobacter: Seven things you need to know about supermarket chicken bug

Study showed that more than 70 percent of raw chicken sold in British supermarkets was infected with campylobacter

Rose Troup Buchanan
Thursday 27 November 2014 17:23

More than 70 percent of fresh chicken sold in British supermarkets is contaminated with the campylobacter bug, with Asda reporting the highest incidence rate.

The investigation, conducted the Foods Standards Agency (FSA), showed that number of chickens contaminated by the campylobacter bug, which is the biggest cause of food poisoning in the UK, had risen from 59 percent in August.

Asda was found to have the highest incidence of contaminated chicken at 78 percent of samples infected overall. Tesco was the only major retailer to have a lower incidence of the bug (on a higher level) at 11 percent.

It is the first time the FSA, who tested just under 2,000 fresh chickens in the study, has named retailers.

An Asda spokesperson said: “We take campylobacter seriously and it goes without saying that we’re disappointed with these findings.

“There is no ‘silver bullet’ to tackle this issue, but along with other retailers, we’re working hard to find a solution.”

"These results show that the food industry, especially retailers, need to do more to reduce the amount of Campylobacter on fresh chickens," said Steve Wearne, the director of policy at the FSA.

Individual numbers for Lidl, Aldi and Iceland were not reported as their market share was based on 2010 figures and deemed too small.

Seven things you need to know

What is it? Campylobacter is a bacterium that causes intestinal infections, usually developing a few days after eating contaminated food and typical symptoms, including diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting, can last from one to 10 days.

Although not usually life-threatening, in severe cases – usually affecting the young, the very elderly or those with immunosuppressed systems - the bug can kill. The FSA states that roughly 100 people die every year.

How do I get it? Campylobacter poisoning occurs through uncooked meats, around 80 percent of which comes from chicken.

It can be passed through raw or contaminated milk, water and ice. Pets with diarrhoea carry the bacteria, and contact with livestock can sometimes also result in the bug.

How can I avoid it? Simple: by adequately cooking your meat you remove any dangers. Ensure that when eating chicken the meat has been cooked through. Freezing chicken can also kill the bug.

Also, don’t think because you buy organic you’ve got a lower chance of getting campylobacter - much of British meat goes through the same abattoirs.

What do I do if I get it? Not a lot. Very few cases require any kind of medication. Most people need to keep an eye on their fluid intake and make sure they stay hydrated if suffering from diarrhoea.

Acute cases, such as those in small children or the elderly, are sometimes put on antimicrobial medicines.

How widespread is it? The bug makes an average of 280,000 people ill each year, costing the UK economy roughly £900 million. The FSA have labelled it an “unacceptably high public health burden”.

It is the most common type of food poisoning in Britain. Higher levels have been detected in chickens during the summer months.

How did the supermarkets do? Tesco came out best with only 11 percent of their meat showing “high-level” quantities of campylobacter, while Asda reported the highest percentage. The second-worse larger retailer was M&S: the FSA found that 22 percent of their chickens also had high-levels of the bacteria. Morrisons (21 percent), Co-Op (19 percent), Waitrose (16 percent) and Sainsbury’s (14 percent) formed the rest of the list.

Why the discrepancies? The FSA say retailers drive standards in their specifications to suppliers and claim they will be key to improvement.

Overall, none of the supermarkets came out well, with all failing to meet the official target of having less than 10 percent of their chickens contaminated. Roughly 90 percent of all fresh chickens come from the intensive farms and abattoirs of just five processing companies.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments