by Nick Hughes
When the fast food giant KFC gave the public an insight into the life of its birds in July this year, the results may have come as something of a shock. The company revealed that on farms supplying its UK & Ireland business more than a third of birds suffer from footpad dermatitis, an inflammation that in severe cases can prevent birds from walking normally. One in 10 birds also suffer from hock burn caused by ammonia from the waste of other birds. In total, in a flock of 10,000 birds, on average around 400 – or 4% - die or are culled due to disease and defects.
Although the results were stark, KFC won praise from campaigners for its willingness to open up its chicken supply chain to public scrutiny. It also revealed some positive trends in terms of chicken welfare with the overall rate of mortality having fallen steadily since 2016 while levels of footpad dermatitis have also reduced.
The welfare of chickens on farms has implications further down the supply chain. In particular, effective management of diseases such as Campylobacter, which is the most frequent cause of gastroenteritis in Ireland and across the EU and of which poultry is the main foodborne source, is critical to minimising the risks to consumer health.
Other issues, such as (over)use of antibiotics, while less directly linked with consumer’s short-term health, are also a cause for concern among scientists – who express further worries that Brexit and the ongoing crisis over Covid-19 could exacerbate the challenges around poultry safety both for consumers and workers.
The impact of Campylobacter
There is little question, however, that from a consumer safety perspective Campylobacter remains the number one challenge relating to poultry production and consumption. Campylobacter is a naturally occurring bacterium found in raw poultry that has the ability to cause food poisoning if the product is not cooked or handled correctly. Beyond the risk of severe gastroenteritis, Campylobacter has been associated with the development of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a chronic and potentially fatal disorder of the peripheral nervous system.
In March this year, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) published new comprehensive estimates of the human costs caused by foodborne illnesses in the UK. Estimates were developed in part by surveying more than 4,000 people to produce monetised values of symptoms such as pain, grief and suffering and changes to quality and length of life. The research concluded that the burden arising from the 13 main foodborne pathogens is around £3bn. Norovirus imposes the greatest burden at an estimated annual cost of £1.68bn followed by Campylobacter (£0.71bn) and salmonella (£0.21bn). Cases of Campylobacter, which are common but generally not severe, impose a burden of £2,380 per person.
Cases of Campylobacter remain prevalent across the UK and Ireland. Data from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) shows that in 2018, Ireland recorded 3,044 confirmed cases of campylobacter at a rate of 63 per 100,000 people. The UK, by contrast, recorded a total of 65,246 cases at a rate of 98.4. In both cases, numbers and rates followed an upward trend between 2015 and 2018 albeit the UK recorded a higher number of cases in 2014.
Due to its much larger volumes – around 80 million broilers are slaughtered in the UK in an average month versus around 800,000 turkeys – chicken presents the most common foodborne risk of Campylobacter. However, since most turkeys and ducks are also produced in large-scale production units they remain vulnerable to disease. Wild game, meanwhile, also carries microbiological risks that have to be managed to minimise the risk of foodborne disease. Game birds such as quail, grouse and pigeon can carry bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli and the parasites Trichinella and Toxoplasma gondii.
It is widely acknowledged that eradicating the bacterium in enclosed conditions – which represents the majority of UK & Ireland poultry production – is close to impossible, therefore the onus is on producers and their retail customers to manage levels of contamination as best they can.
In the UK, the FSA has historically compiled figures from the leading food retailers on Campylobacter results for fresh shop-bought UK-produced chickens. When the FSA first began testing back in 2014, 18.4% of samples were found to contain Campylobacter on neck skin at levels above 1,000 colony forming units per gram (cfu/g). The FSA retail survey continued until October 2017 and in the final three months of testing, high-level Campylobacter prevalence among the top nine retailers had fallen to 5.9%, having declined steadily in the intervening years.
Supermarkets now publish data on their own websites and rates have generally remained below the 7% target. However for the first quarter of 2020, Tesco reported that 9% of chickens tested exceeded the target (and indeed Tesco’s own benchmark of 5% of birds with more than 1,000 cfu/g) a result the company attributed to a reduced sample size compared to previous tests.
Waitrose, by contrast, recorded a figure of zero for the same period. “The key to our good results continues to be the incredible hard work of our farmers and suppliers combined with our own rigorous data gathering and analysis, surveying chicken both at the factory and on supermarket shelves,” a spokesperson told Food Safety News.
In Ireland, where there is no requirement for retailers to publish data on Campylobacter prevalence in chicken, the approach has been for industry to take the lead voluntarily. At the invitation of the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), a Campylobacter Stakeholder Group under the chairpersonship of Prof. Pat Wall of UCD was convened in July 2015 to proactively address the issue of reducing the incidence of Campylobacter in humans through the reduction in the level of contamination in broiler flocks and the level of contamination, and cross contamination, throughout the food chain.
The stakeholders group includes representatives of farmer-growers, processors such as Moy Park and major retailers including Aldi and Tesco. In addition the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), safefood, Bord Bia and DAFM participate on the group to provide advice on relevant issues. Sub-groups have also been set up to examine and advise on specific sectoral issues.
In April 2017, the group published a report in which chair Professor Wall set out some of the challenges of managing the bacterium. “Poultry farms and processing facilities are not operating theatres and raw chicken meat on retail sale will never be a sterile product,” said Wall. “Therefore the strategy to reduce the exposure of the public to this germ is one of incremental risk reduction along the entire supply chain coupled with communication of the residual risk and how to manage it to the public. Every stakeholder along the supply chain from farmers to retailers has a part to play to ensure consumers get the safest chicken meat possible.”
The report went on to list a series of actions both taken and ongoing including the development of an optimum biosecurity protocol for growers and the standardisation of sampling and laboratory testing to approved approaches. This DAFM group remains active and continues to progress the various recommendations in the 2017 report.
In the UK, supermarkets in partnership with their suppliers have similarly been looking at ways to improve production processes and thereby reduce the risk of Campylobacter to the end consumer. Last year, Asda announced the trial of a new kind of packaging on its fresh chicken which involved swapping the hard plastic trays for soft pouches on its 250g and 500g packs of diced chicken breasts and mini chicken fillets. The packs are automatically filled by a machine so there’s no risk of contaminating the outside of the pack by handling it.
Anna Barr from the retailer’s poultry team noted that at home most customers use a knife to cut the plastic trays open which increases the risk of cross contamination and the risk of Campylobacter. “With the new packs you don’t have to handle the raw poultry at all. It’s really easy to use – you just rip the pack open and pour the chicken straight into the pan,” said Barr.
Elsewhere, Sainsbury’s has been working to reduce humidity in chicken sheds, which can help sustain bacteria, by using biomass heaters that distribute heat throughout the sheds using hot water pipes. It is also looking at rapid surface chilling technology which can reduce the amount of bacteria found on the outside of the chicken, as well as creating a high oxygen environment around chickens before they are sealed to control the atmosphere inside the packaging.
Addressing antimicrobial resistance
Beyond Campylobacter, the use of veterinary drugs to treat and prevent diseases is another issue high up the scientific and policy agendas. In poultry production, coccidiostats are routinely used for the treatment and prevention of coccidiosis, a significant parasitic disease affecting poultry as well as game birds generally which in the most severe cases can lead to mortality and in a less acute form can lead to sub-optimal weight gain, poor feed conversion and poor egg production.
For these reasons it is seen as critical by producers to control coccidiosis. The British Poultry Council reports that the use of coccidiostats increased 15% from 2012-2016 in line with the increase in poultry production during this period. Professor Chris Elliott, founder of the Institute for Global Food Safety at Queen’s University Belfast, says coccidiostats are not currently considered a food safety risk, while the British Poultry Council points out that they are animal-only antimicrobials that are not used in human medicine and do not contribute to antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
Nevertheless, AMR – by which microbes evolve to resist the action of antimicrobial drugs including human-critical antibiotics – is an issue of growing concern for scientists and policy makers, and by extension for livestock producers including poultry. Back in 2013, the UK’s chief medical officer described AMR as “one of the greatest threats to modern health”. Subsequently, a seminal review carried out by Jim O’Neill, commissioned by the UK Prime Minister, concluded that based on scenarios of rising drug resistance for six pathogens to 2050, the global burden of deaths from AMR could total 10 million lives each year by 2050, at a cumulative cost to global economic output of $100 trillion.
The poultry industry has responded by reducing its dependence on antibiotics. In its 2019 Antibiotic Stewardship report, the British Poultry Council reported an 80.2% reduction in the total use of antibiotics from 2012-2018 and an 82.6% reduction in the use of critically important antibiotics.
Businesses have taken similar steps to reduce usage. In the UK & Ireland, KFC’s total antibiotic use reduced from 33.76 mg/kg in 2015 to 21.32 mg/kg in 2019. McDonald’s and Subway, meanwhile, are among the businesses to commit to phasing out the use of antibiotics critical to human health in their meat production.
Outside of the closely regulated supply chains of multinational companies, however, there are concerns that antibiotic use is not so closely monitored. Professor Elliott notes there are concerns that some farmers may buy antibiotics on the internet and use them illegally. There is also a belief that third country imports of poultry into Europe are not as well controlled in terms of antibiotic use although there is a lack of data to prove this is the case.
This has particular relevance to Brexit given the UK Government’s determination to break free from EU regulations and strike new trade deals with third countries. In 2018, the European Parliament voted to end the practice of treating groups of healthy animals with antibiotics. The ban will come into force in 2022, after the UK’s planned exit from the EU. The UK has not yet committed to the same ban after Brexit and has so far resisted pressure to enshrine existing food and farming standards in its Trade and Agriculture bills which are currently progressing through Parliament.
Impact of the coronavirus pandemic
A more immediate safety risk is presented by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Professor Elliott says: “As the world’s inspection and auditing systems have come under major strain I believe that additional food safety risks will emerge,” albeit he adds that it is still too early to know if this hypothesis is true.
One thing that has become apparent is that the risk to workers in food production plants, including poultry producers, from Covid-19 is greater than in many other industry sectors due to the close proximity in which people work. In May, for instance, the Unite union raised concerns about the incidence of coronavirus in several meat plants in Northern Ireland.
Businesses have responded by increasing testing of workers and bringing in bespoke solutions such as enhanced PPE, mandatory face coverings, Perspex screens and managing the flow of traffic through staggering shifts and breaks.
In time the threat from covid-19 will hopefully dissipate, but the challenge of keeping poultry safe for consumers will continue long into the future.
ABOUT NICK HUGHES
Nick Hughes is a freelance journalist specialising in food and environmental affairs. He has had articles published in titled including The Times, The Grocer and The Ecologist and is Associate Editor of Footprint magazine.