Retailers must incentivise poultry suppliers to tackle the UK’s soaring levels of campylobacter contamination, according to the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) board, which met in Aberdeen today (September 11).
If they don’t, the FSA would consider “naming and shaming” retailers and their processor and farming suppliers that failed to meet the achievements of the best in the industry, it has emerged.
The board agreed to FSA proposals for a revised strategy to reduce human incidence of campylobacteriosis from poultry, which are at record levels.
That followed news that reduction targets agreed in 2010 by a Joint Working Party (JWP) set up between the industry and the FSA had been missed for 2013.
A paper presented to the board by the FSA’s director of food safety Steve Wearne stated: “We believe that, for producers, processors and retailers, reduction of campylobacter is no longer simply a pre-competitive technical issue, but needs to become a core business issue.”
Wearne said: “It is for industry to take the leading role to ensure that the food they sell is safe.”
The FSA also wanted big supermarkets to do far more to communicate to consumers the risks of campylobacter and its cross contamination, through labelling and other means. And it wanted to do more itself, calling on other government departments to do likewise.
Not currently a technical silver bullet
Board members said the previous technology-led approach to campylobacter reduction had failed and required far greater input from senior retail and manufacturing executives. They accepted there was not currently a “silver bullet” solution to the problem of campylobacter in chicken.
They also suggested the JWP should continue to investigate improved on-farm biosecurity, plus new technologies and better food hygiene cultural changes along the supply chain to reduce campylobacter levels.
In 2012 there were 72,571 confirmed cases of campylobacteriosis in the UK, but this is known to be an underestimate due to underreporting. Foodborne incidents of the disease are believed to be responsible for 460,000 cases, 22,000 hospitalisations and 110 deaths.
During the board discussions it emerged one unnamed supermarket had managed to reduce campylobacter contamination of its fresh chicken considerably.
While campylobacter contamination of poultry was a complex issue, the FSA wanted best hygiene practice to be applied across the industry. Wearne said: “We are not sure which interventions achieved it. We need a view of which interventions work.”
‘Onus to fix the problem’
Board member Jeff Halliwell, formerly md with firms such as Fox’s Biscuits/ Northern Foods, Bernard Matthews, and First Milk, called on retailers to share more intelligence with each other. He said: “The onus to fix the problem is with the industry – especially retailers. They need to engage much more rigorously with this agenda.”
Board member for Northern Ireland and chair of Northern Ireland Food Advisory Committee Dr Henrietta Campbell added: “Parts of the industry are delivering; why can’t they all do it and do it now? We need incentives for them to do it and if not, sanctions.”
Dr James Wildgoose, board member for Scotland and chair of the Scottish Food Advisory Committee, thought offering suppliers cash incentives to meet campylobacter reduction targets might be a solution. “When there is a price difference on some types of products that is a huge driver for improvement.
The FSA’s chief executive Catherine Brown suggested incentives for those that complied and sanctions for those that didn’t would be important in achieving the desired result.
She said it was the board’s role to convey to their opposite numbers in industry the message that business, as well as technical solutions were the answer.