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External poultry packaging harbours campylobacter threat - report

By Rory Harrington , 25-Jan-2011

Campylobacter has been detected on the external packaging of 40 per cent of fresh chickens on sale in shops across one major UK city, a study has found.

The report from Birmingham City Council urged meat processors to use stronger packaging, called on supermarkets to employ better display techniques and suggested a public awareness campaign in a bid to cut the risk of cross-contamination of the foodbourne bacteria from external packing.

But it also stressed that reducing Campylobacter contamination on broiler farms was key and once achieved the benefits would be reflected throughout the food supply chain, ultimately reducing the number of food poisoning cases.

A report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last year found that around 80 per cent of chicken carcasses on the European market were infected with Campylobacter. The Europe-wide survey found that 75 per cent of fresh UK poultry were carrying the pathogen. The UK Food Standards Agency has declared Campylobacter to be its top priority given the bug sickens an estimated 300,000 people a year and causes 80 deaths.

Survey

The Birmingham's Environmental Health team reached its conclusions after undertaking a survey of 20 packaged fresh chickens taken from the shelves of major supermarkets, local convenience stores and one butcher in the city.

Swabs were also taken from the chilled display cabinet at one “well-known supermarket” after it was observed pools of juice had leaked from the poultry through the packaging onto its surface.

This was exacerbated by the retail practice of standing chickens on their ends which “makes for an attractive display but due to gravitation the natural juices are concentrated into one end of the tray and can leak out if there is a weakness in the shrink wrap and seams”, cautioned the report.

Scientists from the Health Protection Agency Laboratories examined both the exterior packing and the raw meat for Campylobacter and Salmonella.

The HPA found Campylobacter on the external packaging surface of eight of the 20 samples (40 per cent), with the bacteria detected in the meat of seven of the samples (35 per cent). No trace of Salmonella was found on any exterior packaging.

Swabs taken from meat juice pooled in the display chillers also tested positive for the pathogen which, said the report, “indicated that Campylobacter was present at the point of sale”.

It also found there was no link between positive results on the meat and on the external packaging.

This indicates that cross contamination of the external packaging could be at any point: i.e. from the packaging process, distribution, food handlers to the display area itself,” added the report. “This type of packaging can split thereby leaking onto other packs and surfaces.”

Implications

The study concluded there are issues throughout the food chain for cross-contamination to take place. However, it states the public is largely ignorant that external packaging of poultry products is one possible source of the bacteria.

“Consumers remove chicken from the display cabinets and the potential for cross-contamination starts at this point,” it said. “Any surface this subsequently becomes in contact with will be contaminated, including hands, shopping bags and other ready-to-eat foods and work surfaces.”

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