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Campylobacter Risks: How Retailers Are Helping to Safeguard the Public

15 March 2016

For poultry producers, processors, and retailers, delivering a safe product to their consumers is of vital importance.

A particular problem for poultry production and processing is Campylobacter, which is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. As the pathogen’s resistance to antimicrobials grows, retailers and processors are beginning to intervene, writes Laura Elliott.

Campylobacter infection from poultry, other meats, and unpasteurised milk accounts for more than 280,000 cases of food poisoning in the UK every year, and 4 in 5 cases of food poisoning worldwide are caused by the consumption of poultry products.

Of the patients recovering from poisoning by Campylobacter, 36 per cent will go on to develop Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and they will be 77 times more likely than the general population to develop the occasionally-fatal Guillan-Barré syndrome.

According to the Food Standards Authority (FSA), 100 people in the UK die every year from contamination with Campylobacter which flourishes in the gastrointestinal tract of livestock, and particularly in poultry.

In 2014, a study conducted by the FSA concluded than an estimated 73 per cent of fresh, whole chilled chickens sold by retailers in the UK between February and November that year were contaminated with Campylobacter, and 19 per cent of these were heavily contaminated.

The ways in which Campylobacter is introduced and spread between poultry are still largely uncertain, which presents a huge problem for poultry producers in terms of how to minimise this early contamination.

The Role of Antimicrobials

Recently, antimicrobial resistance and the use of antibiotics in livestock and feed animals has been drawn into the spotlight, with the discovery that certain types of bacteria that are harmful to humans, including Campylobacter, may be becoming resistant to the standard treatments.

Antibiotics are used in poultry production to prevent and treat infections, and in the UK are always administered under the supervision of a qualified veterinary surgeon. However, research suggests a link between the use of antimicrobials in animal production and rates of antimicrobial-resistant Campylobacter infections in humans.

To reduce the incidence of food poisoning and prevent a scenario in which infections such as those caused by Campylobacter become untreatable in humans, many producers and retailers are taking steps to safeguard public health, by introducing their own checks for Campylobacter along the meat production process.

Protecting Against Campylobacter Contamination

Although many instances of food poisoning caused by Campylobacter can be prevented by following on-pack cooking, handling and storage advice, M&S numbers itself among the many retailers that are concerned about their role in the spread and resistance of this common bacterial infection.

Recently, the upmarket food chain has begun to work more closely with their biggest poultry supplier – the 2 Sisters Food Group – researching and testing ways to make a positive impact on bacterial infection.

Their approach is to include the entire supply chain, to work against the spread of Campylobacter - from farms right through to the consumer. At the end of their initial research, the chain and its supplier came up with five initiatives they were ready to trial.

  1. Farmer Bonus – A bonus scheme for farmers was introduced, specifically for farmers who were able to sustain ‘Campylobacter free’ farms, and thereby help to stop the spread of the bacteria.
  2. Zero Thinning – The retailer asked their farmers that supply to 2 Sisters, to take part in a trial. It involves them stopping the part-harvesting of chickens from flocks at different points throughout the growing cycle (known in the industry as a ‘zero thinning’ policy). It’s hoped that this will maintain farm biosecurity throughout the lives of the chickens, and thereby potentially reduce levels of Campylobacter, as well as improving bird welfare.
  3. Blast Surface Chilling – The retailer also moved their attention to the processing line, by installing new technology that rapidly chills whole chickens. The new system circulates air at minus 90 degrees Celsius, which is just enough to chill the meat without freezing it.
  4. Clear Labelling – The chain made their labelling on M&S whole chickens clearer than before, by adding a large front-ofpack label that says “Washed and Ready to Cook”. It is sometimes little known by the public that splashing water on chicken is not necessary, and may actually help to spread Campylobacter.
  5. Double Bagging – Aside from these measures, M&S introduced a ‘double bag’ system for their whole chickens, which means they can be placed straight into the oven still in a bag. The customer doesn’t need to unwrap the product before cooking, which reduces the risk of cross contamination in the kitchen.

Since this trial has been in place it has gained the backing of the FSA, after lowering the average rate of M&S chickens contaminated with Campylobacter, from 11 per cent to 5 per cent in just a few months. However, the problem of antimicrobial resistance still remains.

Preventing Antimicrobial Resistance

The 2 Sisters Food Group has made great strides in establishing a balanced measure for antimicrobial use, having considered the views of the World Health Organisation, the World Organisation for Animal Health, and The European Medicines Authority.

The group uses the ‘3Rs’ framework for responsible use: Replace, Reduce, and Refine, as proposed at a roundtable event organised by FAI and Ceva.

  1. Replace: The company will review instances where antibiotics are currently used as a first resort treatment, and replace them with other health interventions, which might include vaccinations, changes to husbandry, biosecurity, and the reduction of stress. They have also set-up two trial farms which are scheduled to run indefinitely on the following criteria: a. Antibiotic and coccidiostat free. b. Antibiotic free, but maintaining the use of coccidiostats.
  2. Reduce: By using the Red, Amber and Green system, The 2 Sisters Food Group plan to reduce the number of day-old chicks receiving treatment across the Group. This system is able to target treatment based on a risk assessment of the parent flock’s health and production farm health history.
  3. Refine: The company have established an internal committee of stakeholders, plus an independent vet with expertise in emerging antibiotic policy and strategy. This is not only to ensure that their strategy is delivered, but also that they are able to continually refine it based on their findings. They will also review new products, vaccines, and technologies as further trials and developments emerge.

Defining Success

Reducing antimicrobial use in farm animals and preventing the spread of Campylobacter is an ongoing project, and as such it’s unlikely that there will be one single ‘Eureka!” moment that defines its success or its failure.

Rather, the steps being taken by retailers like M&S and suppliers such as The 2 Sisters Food Group, will add to an ever-growing pool of knowledge in an attempt to understand the livestock-human interface, and provide better health and welfare for both animals and humans.

Further Reading

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 'Health and Disease' themed issue of ThePoultrySite Digital. To read more articles from this issue, click here.

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