FSA: getting in a flap over nothing
New figures released by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) have revealed the scale of campylobacter infection in the UK’s chicken supply. According to the FSA, campylobacter is ‘the most common form of food poisoning in the UK, affecting an estimated 280,000 people per year’. Poultry, it claims, is ‘the source of the majority of these cases’. From these cases, around 100 people per year die. In the tests, 70 per cent of the chickens sampled tested positive for campylobacter and 18 per cent had campylobacter above the highest threshold tested.
But the real debate has been kicked off by the FSA publishing the results from the supply of individual retailers, a move that has been described by some as ‘naming and shaming’ the worst offenders. There wasn’t much to be learned from this, however. The highest proportion of affected birds was from Asda (78 per cent, 28 per cent in the highest infection category); the lowest was – possibly to the annoyance of food campaigners – from Tesco (64 per cent, 11 per cent in the highest infection category). But, in truth, the proportion of infected chickens in most stores – even smaller stores – was just a few percentage points either side of the average. The problem is really with the handful of food processors who supply almost all of the chickens in the UK.
Everyone would agree that measures should be taken to reduce these infection rates. But the problem is as much to do with how chickens are handled by consumers. Chickens should never be washed (unlike your hands after touching them) and need to be cooked thoroughly – and this was true long before the problem of campylobacter became more pressing. As the FSA notes: ‘If chicken is cooked thoroughly and preparation guidelines are properly followed, the risk to the public is extremely low.’ Even if campylobacter disappeared overnight, chicken would still be the one common variety of meat that would always need careful handling and cooking.
Some of the supermarkets are already looking at ‘cook in a bag’ packaging, which would mean that consumers put the chicken straight in the oven without direct contact, or working with the processors to reduce infection rates through better bio-security or handling methods. Working on a large scale with the aim of cutting costs to the bone is both the problem and the solution – the enormous level of output can make quality control tricky, but big firms can also make the investment in the necessary innovations thanks to their economies of scale.
What this non-scare over our chicken supply really reveals is that some commentators have a tendency to turn a practical problem – reducing a particular infection – into a morality tale about the evils of big business and cheap chicken. If only we spent a fortune on free-range and organic chickens from small farms, they say, all would be well. So a little perspective is required: those 288,000 cases of campylobacter per year occur (mostly) from the 2.2million chickens we consume every day. Since 80 per cent of campylobacter comes from infected poultry, at most that’s one case of campylobacter poisoning for every 3,500 chickens sold. In other words, the risk of food poisoning from your chicken is still pretty low – despite the fact that we’re eating more than ever.