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19 Feb 2020

New levels of bacteria in UK chicken revealed

Restrictions on use of antibiotics in chicken farming are having a positive effect

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has released the results of its latest survey on the levels of harmful bacteria antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) E.coli and AMR campylobacter in fresh chicken sold in the UK.

The survey is carried out each year and is currently in its fourth year.

For the first time since the survey began a drop in AMR resistant E.coli has been recorded.

Levels of AMR campylobacter were similar to the previous year.

What is AMR bacteria?

Antimicrobial resistance happens when microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites) change when they are exposed to antimicrobial drugs (such as antibiotics).

You'll often see microorganisms that develop antimicrobial resistance referred to as superbugs.

The growth and spread of bacteria resistant to antibiotics is a real concern for public health, as it means bugs persist and could be more easily spread.

Antibiotics are vital for treating infections and preventing disease. But their overuse and misuse in healthcare and animal husbandry settings has resulted in an increase of resistant microorganisms - which could eventually render antibiotics useless.

What are AMR E.coli and AMR campylobacter?

E.coli and campylobacter are bacteria - they can't be seen, tasted or smelt.

AMR E.coli and AMR campylobacter are isolates of these bacteria that have become resistant to antimicrobial treatment (either one or many).

The transmission of these, and other AMR microorganisms, through the food chain is one way that people are exposed to AMR bacteria. This might contribute to antibiotic resistance in treating human infections but nobody has yet worked out how.

E.coli is found in human and animal intestines. Some strains are harmless to humans but some can cause illness.

The strain that causes most cases of food poisoning is known as E.coli 0157 and is passed on through contaminated food - often raw and undercooked meats, but also vegetables, salads and unpasteurised milk.

Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK and most cases come from raw chicken. It's also found in red meat, unpasteurised milk and untreated water.

The FSA's science lead in microbiological risk assessment, Paul Cook, said: 'The risk of getting AMR-related infections through eating or preparing contaminated meat remains very low as long as you follow good hygiene and cooking practices.'

  • Cover raw chicken and store it at the bottom of the fridge to avoid 'juices' dripping onto and contaminating other food.
  • Don't wash raw chicken as this spreads bacteria by splashing.
  • Use separate utensils and chopping boards to prepare raw chicken (and meat) to other foods.
  • Wash hands, utensils and surfaces thoroughly with soap after preparing raw chicken.
  • Cook chicken through so that no pink meat remains and juices run clear.

The future of antibiotics in farming

In recent years there has been a real push to decrease the use of antibiotics in farming and it seems that these tighter controls are having a beneficial effect.

A Which? survey found that 78% of people would be concerned about eating food produced by giving antibiotics to healthy farm animals to promote their growth, which is allowed in some countries.

Other countries, such as the US, have much higher use of antibiotics in animal husbandry.

UK consumers have told us their concerns around allowing food produced to lower standards into the UK.

Which? is working to ensure future trade deals work for UK consumers.