Retailers in the Irish Republic have been advised to source chicken from packers who use leak-proof packaging, to reduce the risk of exposing consumers to campylobacter.
The warning has been issued by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), which estimates that as many as 180,000 people each year in the Republic could be infected by the bacteria, which causes food poisoning.
In most cases, it says, the illness is a short-lived stomach bug that goes unreported, but can be life threatening for the very young and the elderly.
In an investigation by the FSAI, which involved testing almost 800 packaging surfaces and a similar number of supermarket display cabinets, the Authority found the campylobacter bug on the outside of more than 13% of chicken packets and on 11% of display shelves. This leakage, it said, could result in dangerous cross-contamination of food that was not cooked prior to consumption.
This latest health alert follows a study by the European Food Safety Authority, which found, in an inspection of Irish plants, that 98% of Irish chickens were contaminated with campylobacter. According to its report, that was the second highest incidence of contamination in the EU, which the study found had an average score of 76%.
According to chief executive Alan Reilly, the FSAI has been urging retailers for some months to use leak-proof packaging for chicken, but many had still not done so, citing the higher costs involved.
“Leak-proof packaging can provide a significant barrier to the spread of campylobacter,” he said. “And we have asked retailers to source chicken products from producers that use such packaging.
“Where chicken is sold in conventional packaging, retailers are asked to review their food safety management systems to control the risk of campylobacter spreading to ready-to-eat foods. We would recommend that retailers consider providing specific bags for chicken products to protect against leakage.”
He added that, while it would be impossible to eliminate campylobacter from the food chain, its level could be substantially reduced. Consumers could also help by using a special shopping bag for raw poultry and by careful storage, handling and cooking.
A spokesman for the Irish Farmers’ Association blamed the high incidence of campylobacter in the Republic on the wet Irish weather, “which provides a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria”. It had nothing to with intensive farming, he said.