In my last blog post I revealed that my main research interest for the past 15 years has been trying to understand how humans become ill from infectious diseases, predominantly the ones that cause food poisoning such as the gastrointestinal pathogens including E. coli O157, campylobacter, cryptosporidium, salmonella, and listeria.
For this month’s blog, I thought I would give some basic facts and figures on the most common cause of foodborne illness in Scotland, campylobacter. From our work, we have established that chicken is still the largest source for human campylobacter infection at 55% to 75%.
The Food Standards Agency is leading a UK-wide campylobacter strategy to reduce the number of cases of food poisoning caused by contaminated chicken. At Food Standards Scotland, we are supporting this strategy by engaging with industry to promote measures which reduce contaminated flocks and poultry at farm level, at slaughter, in retailers and to increase your awareness of campylobacter risks to help safer handling and cooking at home, with initiatives such as our summer barbecue and festive food safety marketing campaigns.
We monitor campylobacter levels in three ways: the abattoir survey, the retail survey and numbers of human cases. We still have some way to go to meet the abattoir target, which is based on a scientific risk assessment and recommends that less than 10% of chicken leaving them should have high levels of contamination. However, we are making steady progress. We also monitor the levels in retailers to see what’s getting through to consumers and the results from the end of 2016 are due to be published in March 2017. To protect consumers, we will continue to help smaller independent abattoirs to reduce their campylobacter levels and the UK survey continues to be the most effect way to maintain pressure on the poultry industry to improve.
Increasing consumer awareness through FSS’s campaign work is our priority, so that you know what cooking chicken safely actually means: all the way through until steaming hot, with no visible pink meat and clear juices. My top food tip is to check your chicken, with a meat thermometer, so that the temperature at the thickest part reaches 75°C before serving. We are here to ensure the food you eat is safe and continue to put pressure on the poultry industry to reduce campylobacter levels with the expectation that, in the not too distant future, we will see a reduction in both the human cases of campylobacteriosis and the percentage of cases linked to chicken.
So how are we doing? In Scotland, human infection rates have reduced, reports received by Health Protection Scotland (HPS) in 2016 declined by 15.5% compared to 2015. Could this be confirmation that our UK-wide campylobacter campaign is working? It is still too early to say that this reduction is due to our strategy, but it is reassuring news and it may be that all the partnership working between government, abattoirs and retailers is finally paying off.