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The Food Safety Authority Ireland (FSAI) made the call in the wake of the publication of a Europe-wide survey which found around 80 per cent of chicken carcasses on the market are contaminated with Campylobacter. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) described the finding as "alarming" – and said the research confirmed poultry was a major vehicle in the transmission to humans of the foodborne disease.
The baseline study – the first to be carried out on Campylobacter in the region – found that 83 per cent of broiler chickens sampled in Ireland were infected with the bacteria. Of the major poultry producing nations, only Spain had a higher incidence at 88 per cent.
Irish food safety chiefs said its own research had also found that 13.2 per cent of the external surfaces of chicken packaging were contaminated with Campylobacter. The finding has prompted the body to issue advice on how to control the spread of the bacteria.
After examining almost 800 packaging surfaces and the same number of retail display cabinets, the agency’s preliminary findings showed that "that cross-contamination can occur from a whole chicken, if the packaging allows the meat juices to leak out". This has the potential to cross contaminate other foods and "is especially serious if it leaks on to food which will not be cooked prior to consumption".
The body added that only 2.1 per cent packaging designed to prevent leakages was contaminated. This compared to 18.9 per cent of packaging where plastic is wrapped around the tray and sealed underneath. The survey cautioned this "conventional packaging was more prone to leakage of juices".
The research also revealed that 10.9 per cent of the surfaces of retail display cabinets were contaminated with Campylobacter species.
The body urged the Irish retail sector to source chicken products from producers using leak-proof packaging solutions or to provide customers with specific bags to prevent leakage of potentially contaminated poultry juices.
The FSAI said the findings of both studies provided "significant data" to look at practical measures to form the basis of a Campylobacter control programme in Irish chicken.
"Leak-proof packaging can provide a significant barrier to the spread of Campylobacter and we have asked retailers to source chicken products from producers using leak-proof packaging solutions," said Professor Alan Reilly. "Where chicken is sold in conventional packaging, retailers have been asked to review their food safety management systems to control the risk of Campylobacter spreading to ready-to-eat foods."
Campylobacter is a naturally occurring bacterium found in the intestinal tract of livestock and poultry used for food production and can therefore, be transmitted through a variety of foods of animal origin.