New figures from UK surveillance bodies1 show a 17% decline2 in the number of laboratory reports of human cases of campylobacter in 2016.
The Food Standards Agency used laboratory reports, along with other factors, to estimate what level of decline in human cases could be achieved through our work to reduce campylobacter in chickens. Based on that modelling, we estimate that there are 100,0003 fewer human cases of campylobacter overall. This meets our aim4, agreed by our Board, to reduce the number of people getting ill from the food poisoning bug by this amount. Achieving this reduction is estimated to lead to a direct saving to the economy of over £13 million in terms of fewer days off work and NHS costs.5
Levels of campylobacter ;in chicken continue to decline, as demonstrated in the first set of results from our third year survey of campylobacter on fresh shop-bought whole chickens, published today.
The results for the first five months of our third retail survey, from August to December 2016, show:
- Overall, 7% of chickens tested positive for campylobacter within the highest band of contamination6
- Among the nine retailers with the highest market share, 5% of chickens tested positive for campylobacter within the highest band of contamination
The results show a decrease in the number of birds with the highest level of contamination compared to the same months in 2015 and 2014. The new data show 7% of chickens tested positive for the highest level of contamination, down from 12% for the same period in 2015 and 20% in 2014. Research has shown that reducing the proportion of birds in this category will have the biggest positive impact on public health.
The individual results for each of the nine retailers with the highest market share (representing over 80% of chicken sales) are listed below (along with the 'others' category which includes smaller retailers). As a group, the percentage of their chickens that tested positive for campylobacter within the highest band of contamination is 5%. Progress has been made by the larger processing plants, which supply the major retailers, towards reaching the target which was agreed with industry to reduce levels of the most heavily contaminated birds at slaughter to not more than 10%. However, overall the industry has not yet met this target. This is partly because the smaller independent plants (which tend to supply smaller retailers) have yet to make similar improvements.
The percentage of chickens that tested positive for the presence of campylobacter at any level is 56%, down from 66% in 2015 and 78% in 2014. This includes samples with very low levels of campylobacter, which would be unlikely to cause illness.
Heather Hancock, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, said: “The challenge we set of reducing the number of people who get ill from campylobacter has been achieved. In the absence of any other clear indicators, we can reasonably say that the work that we and the food industry have done from farm to fork has given us this really positive result for public health.
'This has been achieved by working with the industry to tackle this difficult problem and raising consumer awareness. We commend the efforts of the larger retailers and the major processing plants who supply them, all of which have shown significant improvement and many have achieved the target we set to reduce the highest levels of campylobacter. They have invested a lot of effort and money into interventions to tackle the problem.
'But there is more to be done and our focus now is on encouraging the smaller retailers and processors, who generally haven’t met target levels, to follow the lead of the major players and we are considering how we can best help them and monitor their progress.'
The FSA is changing the way it monitors levels of campylobacter on chickens at slaughterhouse level by ending the monitoring programme in its current form. This will not impact on the retail survey, results of which will continue to be reported, and will be the method through which the large processors and retailers will be measured. In order to better focus on the processors which are not making significant improvements (generally the small-medium sized poultry plants), the FSA is developing plans that may include targeting specific sites with FSA inspections.
The FSA is also publishing today the full report from the second year campylobacter retail survey, which tested levels on chickens from July 2015 to March 2016. All results from this survey have been previously published. This report brings together the results and provides an analysis of the data.
The chart below shows the number of laboratory reports of human cases of campylobacter decreasing in line with the proportion of chickens in the highest contamination band (above 1000 cfu/g) from 2014 to 2016.