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Thursday, 16 August, 2001, 00:40 GMT 01:40 UK
Shop chickens 'rife' with food bug
Roast chicken
Free-range poultry "just as likely" to be contaminated
A large proportion of fresh chickens on supermarket shelves are infected with the most common form of food poisoning bacteria, according to a survey for the BBC.

A separate Food Standards Agency (FSA) survey has confirmed there are high levels of campylobacter in chickens on sale across the UK.

Campylobacter, which can cause severe stomach pains and diarrhoea, was found to be present in 69% of chickens tested, according to an investigation for BBC1's 4 x 4 series.

Researchers tested 100 fresh chickens from Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Safeway, Somerfield and Co-op, and found organic and free-range chickens were just as likely to be infected.

The FSA has got to get a grip on campylobacter

Hugh Pennington, Food safety expert

They also found 91% of the infected poultry were carrying the campylobacter jejuni strain, believed to be most harmful to the body.

The results will be broadcast next Monday in a report by former Tory Health Minister Edwina Currie.

Salmonella success

The FSA survey, carried out between April and June this year, found levels of infection of campylobacter at 46% in England, 42% in Wales, 75% in Scotland and 77% in Northern Ireland.

Five thousand fresh and frozen chicken samples were examined.

The bottom line is that we will not succeed in reducing food-borne illness if we don't tackle campylobacter

Sir John Krebs,
The study also found that salmonella infection levels in chickens had fallen to the lowest level ever recorded, from around 20% last year, to an average of 5.8% across the UK.

Sir John Krebs, head of the FSA, said: "Levels of campylobacter in chickens are far too high. This is partly because not enough is known about this bug.

"There is clearly still a lot of work to be done here - but we and industry are addressing the problem.

"The bottom line is that we will not succeed in reducing food-borne illness if we don't tackle campylobacter."

Currently the FSA, which spends 4m a year on microbiological research in the interests of food safety, only puts 600,000 into research on campylobacter.

Dr Jon Bell from the agency told 4 x 4: "The emphasis has just been put elsewhere and undoubtedly campylobacter is the problem now."

The agency aims to reduce all food-borne diseases by 20%.

'Shocked and appalled'

Food safety expert Professor Hugh Pennington from Aberdeen University said: "The FSA has got to get a grip on campylobacter and the only way they're going to do that is by funding more research and doing it soon."

Peter Jenkins, of the Consumers' Association, said he was concerned at the continuing high incidence of campylobacter contamination.

"We still don't know enough about campylobacter, even though it is the most common type of food poisoning," he said.

He called for all food premises to be licensed and to have to meet stringent hygiene standards.

He added: "This survey underlines the need for consumers to report suspected cases of food poisoning to their GP, and for GPs to report cases to their health authorities, so that a fuller picture of food poisoning can be revealed."

There were a total of 86,316 officially notified cases of food poisoning in the UK during 1999, including 54,994 cases of campylobacter.

Scientists say best way to kill bacteria in poultry is to ensure it is cooked thoroughly and always wash your hands after touching uncooked chicken.

See also:

04 Feb 01 | Health
Fears over food poisoning
24 Feb 99 | Food Safety
Test could cut food poisoning cases
06 Sep 00 | UK
Food poisoning clampdown
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