Reducing Campylobacter remains vital for the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) despite no evidence of change since 2008.
The pathogen remains the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, killing around 110 people each year.
Out of an estimated total of around one million cases of foodborne disease each year, Campylobacter is considered to be responsible for around 460,000 and 22,000 hospitalisations.
However, the FSA said these estimates are expected to change with publication of the extension to the infectious intestinal disease in the community (IID2) project later in 2013.
Cost at almost $1bn per year
Current estimates by the FSA of the cost of human campylobacteriosis is £900m per year out of a total of around £1.5bn for all foodborne infections.
The most significant source of Campylobacter with respect to human health is poultry, causing 50-80% of cases of campylobacteriosis in the UK and other EU countries and the majority are likely to be linked to raw poultry meat, according to a 2009 EFSA scientific opinion.
An FSA survey of chicken on sale in the UK (2007-8) indicated that 65% of chicken at retail was contaminated with Campylobacter, this data will be updated with the results of a survey expected in late 2014.
The aim of a joint working group (JWG) formed in 2009 was to reduce the percentage of the most heavily contaminated chickens, with more than 1000 colony forming units per gram of chicken (cfu/g) at the end of the slaughter process, from 27% in 2008 to 19% by 2013, and to 10% by 2015.
“We are now at the mid-point of that plan. Industry and government have invested significant money and effort in the search for a solution to Campylobacter in chicken,” said the FSA.
“But despite these efforts there has not been any significant progress towards the reduction target and more people are getting ill as a result of Campylobacter, not fewer. As a consequence, we need to reassess our approach.
“The evidence we have leads us to conclude that it is still appropriate to focus our effort on UK-produced fresh poultry, in particular retail chicken which constitutes the largest volume of fresh poultry consumed in the UK.”
Campylobacter cases yearly
Although the number of human cases of campylobacteriosis in the UK fell by 19% between 2000 and 2004, it has risen since 2005 and is now higher than in 2000.
In 2012 there were 72,571 confirmed cases in the UK but this is known to be an underestimate due to underreporting.
There is not a technical “silver bullet” solution to the problem of Campylobacter in chicken, so achieving progress is about cultural change, said the FSA.
Surface antimicrobial treatments (lactic acid, chlorine compounds and peroxyacetic acid) have been tried in the UK or other countries but none are yet approved for use on poultry within the EU.
FSA cited one example of possible changes to current practices, with a ‘rapid surface chilling’ process which exposes processed carcases to extremely cold gases for a short period of time which has achieved a significant reduction of Campylobacter.
The process will undergo trials at close to production scale to ensure the process remains effective and treated birds can be marketed as ‘fresh’ poultrymeat (as opposed to frozen). If successful, it could be available for commercial installation from 2014.
The strategy will be discussed at the FSA Board meeting in Aberdeen, Scotland on 11 September.