According to the Food Standards agency, the bacteria campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. It is responsible for over 403,000 cases in England and Wales in 2010 resulting in more than 19,000 hospitalisations and 96 deaths.
Rick Pendrous from FoodManufacture.co.uk recently had the chance to speak to the FSA’s chief scientist Dr Andrew Wadge.
RP: Andrew, the FSA is already working with the food industry to reduce the levels of campylobacter contamination in poultry both on farms and along the supply chain, what measures are being considered?
AW: You are absolutely right Rick to highlight the importance of campylobacter as the major source of food poisoning in the UK and indeed across Europe, it is actually affecting 9 million people each year across Europe. So there is no simple, easy solution to this; what we are looking at, working with industry, a whole range of measures from increasing biosecurity within the poultry houses to potential measures in the slaughter houses and leak-proof packaging material that might help protect the consumers from spreading bugs when they purchase food within the retail sector.
So we have put a challenge out to the chicken supply industry. What can you do right through the supply to reduce the contamination or the level of campylobacter at each point throughout the supply chain?
RP: New technology offers potential to reduce the level of campylobacter contamination even further, what are the barriers to introducing these new technics?
AW: One of the really hopeful approaches of so called “antimicrobial treatment agents”, lactic acid is one potential that we know has worked in New Zealand and other parts of the world; it has had a major effect in reducing the load of campylobacter in chicken and indeed a subsequent reduction in the number of human cases of campylobacteriosis. So we know that these antimicrobial treatment agents work, we know they can reduce food poisoning, protect people from getting sick and we also know through the advisory committee experts such as FSA that they are not introducing any additional risk. What are the barriers? Those barriers are ones of perception and politics. We have to be able to bring consumers and the politicians along to understand that the benefits of introducing these controlled measured will outwait any potential risk.
RP: I gather that as well as lactic acid washes even viruses known as bacteriophages have been considered as potential decontaminants for poultry, do you think the public will ever find the use of virus treatment on their food acceptable?
AW: I fundamentally am an optimist and I am also a scientist and I believe that if you spend sufficient time engaging with consumers, engaging with the public, explaining technology and explaining the risk of campylobacter and just how important that risk is, and the potential benefits of introducing controlled measures, and that you are opened and transparent about the science and technology that you use in those controlled measures then I think that we have a fair chance in the long-term of introducing those measures.
So there you have it, much more could be done to reduce the campylobacter along the food supply chain, but not only must the safety of new technics be risk-assessed it is necessary to get consumer acceptance for them, and that is by no means guaranteed.