Chicken prices could rise as shops bid to tackle deadly bug

Steps to tackle widespread campylobacter bug could ultimately drive up prices

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Supermarkets are coming under increasing pressure to tackle the spread of a dangerous bacteria in chicken, but any precautionary measures will likely result in higher prices for the consumer.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has revealed that six in 10 fresh chicken products found in supermarkets are contaminated with the campylobacter bug, which is the most common source of food poisoning in the UK, and kills as many as 100 people every year.

Officals at Public Health England have long advised cooks not to wash raw chicken before cooking and, after handling raw chicken, to wash hands and utensils thoroughly.

Now, they've been told that they can protect themselves more effectively by freezing chicken after purchase and thoroughly defrosting it before cooking.

Co-op first to act

Following a scare over the campylobacter bug, the Co-op has announced that it will now only sell chicken in roast-in-the-bag packaging.

"Shoppers have told us it will make cooking easier because the chicken requires no preparation and can be placed straight in the oven, making it convenient for time-pressed families," says retail chief executive Steve Murrells. "Importantly, the new packaging offers a clear food safety advantage."

The FSA welcomes the move. "We are looking to retailers and their suppliers to introduce a range of actions to help reduce the risks to customers from potentially harmful food bugs, especially campylobacter, which is currently the biggest cause of food poisoning in the UK," says director of policy Steve Wearne.

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A Quarter of Supermarket Chickens Contain High Levels of Campylobacter

But should the industry be doing more? Next week, the FSA plans to ratchet up the pressure by releasing data on which retailers are the worst offenders.

"It is hoped that their publication will encourage retailers and producers to take further action to reduce the levels of campylobacter in chickens," says the agency's Dr Frieda Jorgensen.

"Perhaps it will move them to demanding first and foremost that chickens are reared as free of campylobacter as possible. At the moment the farmer is asked to focus on producing a certain size of chicken and a certain number of them at a precise time."

Already, two big processing companies are testing ways of minimising the problem - rapid surface chilling and steam ultrasound. Rapid surface chilling uses liquid nitrogen to reduce bacteria on the surface of the bird, while ultrasound shakes the bug off, so that it can be cleaned away by steam.

But, as The Telegraph reports, adopting these measures will cost money - and this, combined with a likely fall in sales in light of the scare, could eat into supermarkets' profits. While the Co-op says it's not increasing prices with the introduction of its new packaging, other retailers may well pass the price rise on to consumers.

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