Campylobacter chicken levels still high at small UK retailers

Campylobacter chicken levels still high at small UK retailers

by Sue Jones
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The percentage of chicken sold at smaller retailers that is contaminated with high levels of Campylobacter remains above a Food Standards Agency target.

A UK-wide survey sampled 1,008 chickens from August 2019 to October 2020. It looked at levels of Campylobacter on whole fresh retail chickens from independent shops, butchers and smaller chains such as Iceland, McColl’s, Budgens, Nisa, Costcutter and One Stop.

Campylobacter was detected in 59.6 percent of the chicken skin samples from non-major retailers, and 12.8 percent of them were above 1,000 colony forming units per gram (CFU/g) of chicken skin. This continues to be higher than levels found in samples from the nine major retailers.

The highest single count was 89,000 CFU of Campylobacter per gram of skin. The proportion of highly contaminated chickens was the most for butchers compared to the stores that are part of smaller retail chains.

Rise from last survey
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has a maximum acceptable level of no more than 7 percent of birds with more than 1,000 CFU/g of Campylobacter. In 2019, the UK reported 58,718 cases of campylobacteriosis with raw chicken meat identified as a key vehicle of infection.

More action, including interventions such as improved biosecurity on farms and slaughterhouse measures, is needed to achieve better control of Campylobacter for the smaller retail industry. The focus on these establishments and their suppliers may lead to improvements across the supply chain, including any supplies into the catering trade, according to the report.

In the previous year’s survey, Campylobacter was detected in 55.8 percent of 1,008 samples and 10.8 percent were above the highest level. However, in 2017 to 2018 the pathogen was found in 75.4 percent of 814 samples and 14.7 percent were higher than 1,000 CFU/g.

The percentage of highly contaminated samples in the latest survey was significantly more in larger chickens weighing more than 1,750 grams (3.8 pounds) compared to smaller birds.

Comparing production plant approval codes showed differences in the percentages of chicken samples with more than 1,000 CFU/g, ranging from zero to 34.9 percent, but the number of samples from each processing site was different. This could reflect differences in slaughterhouse hygiene practices or in the proportion of highly contaminated chicken flock batches they receive, found the report.

Limited impact of production and AMR findings
Campylobacter jejuni was the main type isolated while Campylobacter coli was identified in about a quarter of available samples. A combination of both species was found in a small percentage. Campylobacter coli was more frequent in samples of chickens reared with access to range than from standard birds.

No significant differences in the percentage of highly contaminated chickens between those reared without access to range, free-range, or organic were found. However, the sample size was smaller for free range than standard chickens and smallest for organic.

The percentages of isolates with genetic antimicrobial resistance (AMR) determinants found in the study were similar to those in previous years.

Quinolone and tetracycline resistance in isolates from poultry meat and human cases is still high and current measures are not achieving much of a reduction, found the report.

Experts recommended that AMR in Campylobacter isolates from retail chickens continue to be monitored with an emphasis on strains with co-resistance to ciprofloxacin and erythromycin.

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