Families should freeze and defrost chicken if they want to avoid food poisoning, a health chief said yesterday. Six in every ten chickens sold by supermarkets contain potentially lethal bugs that infect half a million people a year. Around 100 of the victims die from vomiting and stomach upsets.
For decades, retailers and officials have known that campylobacter is rife on poultry farms but have failed to take action. Instead an official at Public Health England suggests consumers can help protect themselves by freezing chicken after purchase and defrosting it before cooking.
Frieda Jorgensen said: ‘Freezing does bring about a reduction in the number of campylobacter cells. We believe households can reduce them by 90 per cent by undertaking this freezing process. Reducing the number of campylobacter cells on the chicken can matter in terms of the public health risk.’
However, consumer groups said retailers should take responsibility for the safety of their food. ‘It’s a complete cop-out to try to put responsibility on consumers to have to clean up poor practices caused earlier in the food supply chain,’ said Richard Lloyd, of consumer group Which?
‘The Food Standards Agency, retailers and poultry producers need to make lowering campylobacter levels a much greater priority. The poultry industry must also clean up its act and be more accountable and transparent.’ Authorities will next week bow to public pressure and publish the results of an investigation into which supermarkets are responsible for the most cases of campylobacter. The Daily Mail revealed in August that 59 per cent of chickens in shops are contaminated with the bug.
Other nations have taken far more stringent measures to battle the disease. In Iceland, for example, chickens found to be infected with campylobacter are not allowed to be sold as fresh or chilled food – and must instead be frozen. That does not happen here, Dr Jorgensen said, because fresh poultry fetches higher prices and because demand is greater. Processors are trialing different methods to reduce infection rates such as using steam, ultrasound and blast chilling.
But Dr Jorgensen said: ‘All of those cost money in the big, busy processing plants, but they are looking at whether it does bring a sufficient amount of reductions and if it is worth putting in place. ‘The way forward is to really put in place multiple actions, both at the farm level and at the processing stage. Freezing positive batches will not resolve the UK problem because we just won’t have enough chilled chickens available on the shelves for customers if we are freezing all positive batches.’ Instead, she said, householders could freeze their own chicken at home.
A warning was issued during the summer that washing raw chicken before cooking it can increase the risk of campylobacter. Splashing water under a tap can spread the bacteria on to hands, work surfaces, clothing and cooking equipment. Symptoms usually develop two to five days after eating contaminated food. Most people recover after a few days but in some cases, campylobacter infection can cause irritable bowel syndrome, reactive arthritis or miscarriage. It can be fatal in young children, the elderly and people with a weakened immune system, including cancer patients.
Turkey and all other forms of poultry can harbour campylobacter but the disease is much less likely to be transmitted to shoppers from turkeys because they are usually blast chilled during processing, killing most of the germs.