60% of supermarket chickens contain food poisoning bugs

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A health chief has stated that people should freeze and defrost chicken to avoid food poisoning.

Around 60% of chickens sold in supermarkets contain potentially deadly bugs which infect more than half a million people each year. About 100 of these victims die from stomach upsets and vomiting.

Officials and retailers have been aware for years that campylobacter is present on poultry farms, but have chosen not to take action. Instead, officials at Public Health England have recommended that consumers obtain protection by freezing chicken after purchasing and then defrosting it thoroughly prior to cooking.

Dr Frieda Jorgensen stated that consumers will reduce the expose to campylobacter if they eat chicken which has been frozen, rather than fresh chicken.

Chicken should be cooked thoroughly to prevent disease.

According to Dr Jorgensen, freezing reduces the quantity of campylobacter cells by around 90%.

Despite this advice, consumer groups said retailers should be responsible for the safety of the food they sell.

Richard Lloyd from consumer group Which? said it is a cop-out to shift the responsibility to consumers to clean up the mess caused in the food supply chain. He said poultry producers, the Food Standards Agency and retailers need to make the lowering of campylobacter levels a more important priority.

Authorities are set to publish results of an investigation into the supermarkets responsible for the highest incidences of campylobacter. Other countries have already implemented stricter measure to overcome the disease. For example, in Iceland, chickens found to be infected with the bug cannot be sold as chilled or fresh food and should be frozen instead. This procedure does not happen in Britain because fresh poultry can be sold at higher prices and the demand is higher.

Processors are currently testing various methods to try and reduce the infection rates, including blast chilling, ultrasound and steaming. However, Dr Jorgensen said this all costs money in large, busy processing plants. She said the best way forward is to implement several actions, both at the processing and the farm levels. She added that freezing all positive batches will not resolve the problems as there will not be sufficient chilled chickens available for consumers. Instead, she has recommended that households freeze the chicken at home.

During the summer, the NHS issued warning about washing raw chicken prior to cooking it. The splashing of water can result in bacteria being spread to work surfaces, hands, cooking equipment and clothing.

Dr Jorgensen stated that retailers are not placing sufficient pressure on poultry producers to improve the conditions on their farms. However, a spokesman for the British Poultry Council said retailers and the poultry industry are working together to try and find interventions which could reduce campylobacter, including new methods of equipment maintenance, new packaging ideas, new slaughterhouse technology and improved farm biosecurity. He stated that it would not be practical to follow the model used by Iceland as too many chickens, around 870 million during last year, are slaughtered in Britain.

Other forms of poultry also harbour campylobacter, but shoppers are less likely to become infected from turkeys as they are normally blast chilled during the processing procedure, which kills most of the germs.

Symptoms of infection generally develop within two to five days of eating contaminated food. Most of those affected should recover within a few days, but the infection can cause miscarriage, reactive arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. It may be fatal in the elderly, those with weakened immune systems and young children.

Image Credit: snowpea&bokchoi

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