Britain's Biggest Food Scandal

Paul Freestone explores the recent scandal concerning campylobacter in chickens

The biggest food scandal within the meat industry was finallyexposed in the national media when the FSA (Food Standards Agency) published its damning report about campylobacter in November 2014. This revealed that an average of 70% of all chickens sold in the UK are infected with the bug, a higher figure than previous estimates. The testing was conducted over a six month period, and between May to July the incidence rose to 80%.

Campylobacter is the main cause of food poisoning in the UK, a whopping 90% of all cases. The FSA’s estimate for the total number in 2012 was 500,000. The most common symptoms are vomiting and diarrhoea, with a substantial number being hospitalised every year.
It can cause paralysis, and in the most severe cases, it’s lethal. The official death toll in 2012 was 140, but this is a very low estimate with numerous campylobacter fatalities being unrecorded.

Predictably, the industry claimed that everything possible was being done, but it also blamed consumers for poor hygiene in their own kitchens. This is the industry’s default position: point the finger at somebody else and never accept responsibility.

Kitchen safety

Although it’s correct that thorough cooking will kill the bug, it’s at the raw stage that most problems occur. And everything that an infected carcass touches will be tainted. This will include chopping boards,
knives and hands.

Previously, the official ‘staying safe in the kitchen’ advice stated the following: Firstly, if you wash a chicken, disinfect the sink. Secondly, wash hands, all utensils and worktops after any contact with fresh
chicken. Thirdly, treat the packaging as hazardous and don’t recycle it.

And finally, cook chicken thoroughly until the juices run clear. Basically, this means transforming a domestic kitchen into a high security biohazard zone.

However, some of this advice has now been revised and washing is definitely a very bad idea. Unsurprisingly, this process ensures that the bug is splattered everywhere. A UV light can pick out big splashes of campylobacter in the sink, draining board, and even on the surrounding walls after washing.

Getting away with it

Considering the scale and seriousness of the problem, several key questions are raised. The most obvious one is how does the food industry get away with it? Under current regulations, it’s perfectly legal to sell campylobacter infected food, but anything which tests positive for salmonella must be withdrawn.

A December 2014 report by the consumer group Which? found that most people had never heard of campylobacter. Hardly surprising as previous ‘media exposés’ have had very little impact.

In January 2013, a Radio 4 broadcast The Silent Epidemic, included a detailed investigation into the scandal. This highlighted the spuriousm claims of the producers. A representative of the British Poultry Council disputed the fact that infected chicken was responsible for 90% of all food poisoning in the UK.

By the time of the FSA’s major publication in November 2014, it was a major story although it failed to dent sales of fresh chicken. Why is this? Are most people still unaware? Or do they somehow imagine the
chicken they buy will always be safe? Or perhaps they just couldn’t care less?

Poultry industry

The global meat industry slaughters 65 billion animals a year, and chickens account for over 50 billion of these. In the USA, a staggering 18,000 chickens are killed every minute; UK poultry production is almost one billion per year.

Unfortunately, chickens are the ideal animal for factory farming and the insatiable demand for increased efficiency has ensured that it is the most exploited species on the planet.
In natural conditions, a chick will require three months to grow into an adult. This has been slashed to under five weeks, but this time span is constantly being compressed by the industry.

Another innovation is the genetically modified featherless chicken. This removes all the fuss and expense of plucking after slaughter. Genetic manipulation is an essential tool, as scientists slavishly attempt to minimise costs and boost output.

Intensive farming

But intensive systems are the root of the problem, and only a total ban or massive decrease in output would have any real impact.
Realistically, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Even if the recent media coverage had caused a slump in sales, this would only be a temporary blip. Meat industry scandals (BSE, e-coli, horsemeat, salmonella) have typically had very little long-term effect.
Crucially, those who buy and eat chicken are complicit. The industry can make endlessly disingenuous claims about ‘taking serious action’ but they can’t beat campylobacter; it’s endemic to the intensive
production methods.

And, as long as people keep buying it, nothing will change.

Taken from March/April 2015 (Issue 4) Vegan Life Magazine


The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.