Campylobacter in raw chicken is the biggest food safety challenge facing the UK today, said the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as it admitted the cost and burden of foodborne illnesses was too high.
The body made the declaration to target the bug as its “key food safety priority” as it outlined its £25m Foodborne Disease Strategy to tackle all types of food poisoning by 2015.
Foodborne diseases cost the UK economy almost £1.5bn annually, said Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the FSA. They are responsible for around one million illnesses, leading to 20,000 hospital treatments and 500 deaths – with chicken and beef as the main foods associated with the problem, he added.
The FSA estimated implementation of the food safety plan would likely cost £4-5m annually over the next five years. But the body stressed that success in reducing such diseases would bring significant benefits – with each one per cent reduction in overall incidence leading to 10,000 fewer cases and an economic saving of around £15m per year.
The agency said it had worked closely with industry to reduce food poisoning since it was formed in 2000. It acknowledged that while incidences had fallen by 20 per cent by 2005, little “significant change” had been made since then and “the cost and burden due to foodborne disease in the UK remain unacceptably high”.
“We need to emulate that early success and I am determined that this strategy will re-energise our efforts,” added Wadge.
The agency has highlighted the fight against campylobacter as the major aim. The bacteria is estimated to account for almost a third of all food poisoning cases – at 300,000 a year in England and Wales alone– with a recent study by the FSA finding that 65 per cent of raw shop-chicken was contaminated with the bug.
Working closely with UK meat processors and food business across the supply chain has been identified by the body as the key to combating the problem
Agency proposals included partnerships with the UK food industry to trial new intervention measures on the farm, in slaughterhouses and at retail level. The FSA has previously called on supermarkets to increase the prices it pays to suppliers in order to boost the food standards and quality of poultry processors and producers. The FSA said that as part of a far-reaching programme, it was working with processors to improve plant hygiene and with producers to boost biosecurity measures. The body said it believed campylobacter would be cut along the supply chain if supermarkets were prepared to pay higher prices. Packaging solutions – such as modified atmosphere packing - could also play a part in tackling the problem, it added.
The FSA said it planned to set a new target for reducing the levels of campylobacter on chicken by the end of 2010 and meet these by 2015. Action was also tabled on to undertake risk assessment of listeriosis by March 2012 and develop reduction initiatives for other foodborne pathogens by March 2011.
Consultation on the details of the strategy is currently under way with a view to publishing the final version later this year.