Scientists at the University of Liverpool are working with the major UK food retailers to reduce bacterial infections in chickens and decrease incidences of food poisoning in humans.
Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the project focuses on control mechanisms to reduce Campylobacter infection in farmed broiler chickens. Campylobacter is a bacterium that causes more than 300,000 cases of food poisoning a year in England and Wales.
The most common source of Campylobacter infection in humans is poultry meat – either through consumption of undercooked product or through cross contamination in the kitchen. Whilst good hygiene and thorough cooking can effectively prevent infection, there are still a high number of cases in the UK and the cost to the economy is estimated at up to £600 million per annum.
The Liverpool study is one of 12 major projects to be funded across the UK and will address how the welfare of chickens can impact on their susceptibility to infection. Birds reared in a housed system represent approximately 90% of the UK market, but it is still unclear how this, and other farm environments, relate to changes in the health of chickens.
Professor Tom Humphrey, from the University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, said: “Campylobacter establishes itself in the gut of a chicken, but we have shown that it is more likely to spread through the body when the bird is under stress or infected with other poultry pathogens. More study is needed to fully understand when the birds become infected with the bacteria and how this is affected by poor welfare, such as housing conditions and nutrition, as well as other diseases.
“High levels of the disease in chickens can lead to cross-contamination and infection of meat and liver tissue allowing the bacteria to better survive cooking. It is important that we work closely with farmers and retailers to make sure that animals have the best possible care and food sellers have all the information they need in order to provide quality produce to reduce incidence of food poisoning in humans.”
Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of the BBSRC, said: “Campylobacter raises some unique questions about food security, human health, and animal welfare. We need good science to underpin changes to policy and practice throughout the food chain that can address these problems whilst supporting a strong farming industry and healthy UK economy. These projects are well placed to make significant advances to this end.”
Andrew Wadge, Chief Scientist at the Food Standards Agency, said: “Improving public health by tackling Campylobacter is a key priority for the Food Standards Agency. The levels found on raw chicken are too high in the UK and we are working with industry to reduce them significantly. To help us we need to know more about Campylobacter.”