Campylobacter reduction: Round table discussion with industry executives September 2013

On 2 September 2013, Catherine Brown, Chief Executive of the FSA, hosted a 'round table' discussion on campylobacter reduction with 12 senior executives from leading UK poultry producers, processors and retailers.

FSA monitoring had shown no change in campylobacter contamination levels in fresh chicken at the end of the slaughter process since 2008. The meeting was convened to clarify that it was unacceptable for this situation to continue and to explore what more these businesses could do to reduce levels of campylobacter on poultry.

There was agreement that campylobacter remained a major public health issue that needed to be treated as more than just a technical issue, and to be managed as a business priority at company board level.

The meeting also acknowledged the problem represented a significant business risk to the poultry industry and several participants expressed a desire to avoid an 'Edwina Currie' moment, which could damage the industry.

It was acknowledged that there was unlikely to be a single 'silver bullet' solution to the issue but instead that improvement would be likely to require changes at a number of points across the production chain. There was also a need for a change in culture across the industry that placed greater importance on actions that improved the microbiological quality of products.

The industry representatives expressed a strong commitment to solving the problem and a willingness to invest further time, effort and money to act on their responsibility to help solve the problem, and to identify and implement effective methods to reduce levels of campylobacter in the food chain, on a collaborative and individual basis.

The FSA outlined its intention to increase the amount of information about incidence levels of campylobacter at different stages in the food chain in the future and for this to be shared regularly. This would increase awareness of the issue across the industry, highlight those companies that are controlling contamination most effectively and create an incentive for all to seek to raise their game to the level of the best. There was support for greater sharing of data, which would enable greater understanding of the issue and of the interventions that work and support faster progress towards the reduction target.

It was observed that it was rare for so many senior representatives from across the industry to be gathered around the same table discussing a common food safety issue. The meeting also recognised that in seeking to work together in this way, care would be needed to ensure that discussions did not to stray into commercial areas that might be considered inappropriate with regard to competition law. This would also apply to the future work of the Joint Working Group on campylobacter, of which all companies attending were members. There was strong support for the JWG to continue its work, and agreement that clear boundaries on what could/could not be shared within the constraints of competition law would support collaborative, open discussions and data-sharing. It would be helpful if JWG members could be empowered by their respective companies to contribute fully, understanding the strategic importance while feeling confident of staying within the current legal framework.

In relation to activity on farms, there was agreement that more could be done to strengthen the effectiveness and practical impact of assurance scheme standards, such as redefining specific requirements of the Red Tractor Scheme and strengthening audit of the schemes, or development of more stringent industry codes or standards.

Producers and processors agreed that campylobacter reduction was the top technical priority for their industry and indicated that they would press the British Poultry Council and other relevant bodies to reflect this in their activities and published priorities. They also expressed their willingness to support the use of end-of-line treatments, such as antimicrobial washes, if proven effective, subject to support from the FSA in seeking approval for their use.

Retailers proposed provision of more consistent information to consumers on safe handling and cooking of poultry and suggested the formation of a new communications working group for this purpose. The FSA acknowledged its role in providing support and advice on appropriate messaging and indicated its intention to make Campylobacter the focus of Food Safety Week in June 2014, which could be a focus for such collaborative action. The FSA also recognised its role in tackling regulatory obstacles that might prevent effective action.

Catherine Brown welcomed the positive attitude that had been demonstrated and asked them to develop and share with the FSA their plans for actions within their businesses that would provide a fresh impetus to driving down rates of campylobacter in the food chain.

Feedback from participating companies following the meeting has been encouraging and the FSA will continue discussions with these businesses to explore their plans for action and how these can contribute to delivering reduced levels of campylobacter in poultry as a mechanism to reduce human foodborne campylobacteriosis.

The meeting was attended by representatives from:

2Sisters Food Group, Faccenda, Moy Park, Bernard Matthews, Cargill, Marks and Spencer, The Co-operative, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose.