Raw chicken in supermarket

Just under one-tenth of all samples of fresh chicken sold in supermarkets may still carry the highest levels of a potentially lethal food-poisoning bug, according to the UK government’s food watchdog.

Campylobacter was detectable in half of all the birds tested using methods that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) now says are no longer reliable for consumers or fair to producers.

It has stopped measuring levels of the bacterium found in chicken while it works out a new system of checking for the bug, which is said to be responsible for more than 280,000 cases of food poisoning, and 100 deaths, in the UK every year.

The agency has also stopped, for the moment, detailing the levels of contamination at stores run by the major supermarket chains.

Figures for January to March this year, based on more than 1,000 samples of chicken and packaging, showed 9.3% of chickens tested positive for the highest levels of campylobacter contamination, down from 21.8% for the three months between December 2014 and February 2015.

Packaging contamination dropped from 7.5% between July 2014 and February 2015 to 5.6% between July 2015 and February 2016.

The bacterium was present on half of all chicken samples, down from seven in 10 just over a year ago.

The agency regards itself as a victim of its own success when it comes to problems of reliability.

Its testing has concentrated on skin from birds’ necks, where concentrations of the bug are highest. Retailers and their suppliers have responded by removing neck skin before chicken goes on sale.

Much of the testing now involves skin from the breast, but the agency says the amount of this involved in samples taken from particular retailers may have varied. This may have compromised the comparability of results, so stores’ individual results are not being listed.

Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, said: “These results are moving in the right direction, and I am delighted with progress. It shows what can be done by a real commitment to tackle this bug, and I am encouraging [the] industry to go even further, more quickly, to continue to get the numbers down.”

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