Eek, not food poisoning! Keep calm and cook food thoroughly

Woman butcher
Hygiene and common sense – we’re not utterly defenceless

Relax, nobody’s going to die. Or get the collywobbles . Or anything.

As long as everything is properly cooked, we’re all going to be fine.

Because unless you’re into sushi or steak tartare, nobody eats meat raw, do they?

And if whatever you’re preparing is affected by any bacteria or something, most germs are destroyed by the high temperatures of cooking – everybody’s safe.

Take our current scare with chicken.

There’s all kinds of  official bodies jumping up and down because nearly three-quarters of the chicken in any supermarket is contaminated with campylobacter. Nasty upset tummies with that one, some people can get quite seriously ill.

Inconvenient truths

But here’s a fact of life. Pretty well most poultry has campylobacter. It occurs naturally in birds and may even be necessary for healthy existence. So chickens aren’t contaminated, they’re colonised. Cooked thoroughly, they’re perfectly safe.

It’s like we don’t eat fish with scales, or prawns with the blue vein. They could make you ill too if you were careless enough. It’s part of proper food prep, like shelling eggs, skinning oranges or peeling potatoes.

Of course you DO have to clean everything thoroughly as you do it. Knives, chopping boards, prep surfaces and all utensils need a good scrub after working with chicken. So do your hands, to avoid any risk infection.

But you were going to do all that anyway – WEREN’T you?

It’s the same with Danish bacon. Still about the best you can buy anywhere – but these days unfortunately nearly three-quarters of all Danish pork is afflicted with MRSA.

Well, with so many mouths to feed around the world, we were the ones who pressured farmers in Denmark and elsewhere into boosting production with antibiotics. Shovelling the stuff into livestock in industrial quantities too – 240,000 tonnes a year and skyrocketing.

Superbugs everywhere

Small wonder then that with hundreds of thousands of pigs, any bacteria they were carrying developed resistance. So now we have LA-MRSA (Livestock Associated Methicillin Resistant Streptococcus Aureus) THREATENING us, just like campylobacter.

Well, yes. Except that just like campylobacter, cook that Danish pork properly and all trace of LA-MRSA is removed – the bacon is safe to eat, just like previously.

And right there are two examples of highly popular food types that on the surface present a hazard, but with proper precautions are really nothing to worry about.

Yes, it is disturbing that superbugs like MRSA are in our food. But with antibiotics being used by agriculture in such astronomic quantities, we should heed and take precautions anyway. More than likely all kinds of food types are laced with other superbugs and we need to be on our guard.

At least we can turn up the heat and get rid of most of them – part of the cooking we are already doing.

Worse than superbugs

Much more worrying are residual traces of the antibiotics themselves, which heat cannot get rid of unless you boil your food for hours, losing all taste and appeal.

All those animals were fed antibiotics to keep them healthy in the super-crowded environment of factory farms (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). With the money-making side effect that they fattened up for market in a quarter of the time.

Yeah, well – we eat those animals, we swallow the same antibiotics, we fatten up too. On the one-way road to obesity with all the inevitable complications – diabetes, heart disease, cancer. Literally to a dead end.

Getting rid of the antibiotics – that’s an issue all of us face and none of us are ready for.  A headache for governments and health authorities for years to come.

Superbugs in our food though – they’re a problem too, but we can make them go away.

Guess that answers the question, hey? Would you prefer rare, medium or well-done?

Picture Copyright: leaf / 123RF Stock Photo

Giants clash over chicken: Dame Sally vs the FSA

Threatening Heel
Right or wrong – there’s only one way with hygiene

Looks like the FSA is washing its hands of the food poisoning campylobacter issue.

They want to duck the cost of monitoring birds for this naturally-occurring bacteria and shove it onto industry.

Oh woe is us, woe is us, we’re all going to get sick.

Misplaced objectives

Not if proper leak-proof packaging is in use across the industry we won’t. Most birds have this bacteria in their gut – just like we have over 100 trillion bacteria in our own gut. They’re supposed to be there. Take one away and the balance between all of them is disturbed.

In birds’ metabolism, campylobacter is passive and benign. It does them no harm, and occurs in probably two-thirds of all birds farmed in the UK . Far from a scandal – and not “contaminated” as media hysteria would have us believe, these birds are colonised with it naturally. Because its presence may be necessary, like a catalyst for OTHER positive bacteria to do THEIR job.

For instance, campylobacter is closely related to helicobacter pylori – itself once even called “campylobacter”. Research shows helicobacter pylori to be a key cause of ulcers and stomach cancer. But eliminating helicobacter pylori is also linked to an increase in oesophageal disease and asthma.

Swings and roundabouts. Take away one element and you trigger another. Even one that looks hazardous – at first appraisal. So surprise, surprise, as long as it’s not activated, helicobacter pylori in the body may actually be necessary.

And anyway, if two-thirds of all birds in the UK have this dreadful campylobacter, why aren’t two-thirds of us ALWAYS moaning and groaning with stomach cramps and earth-shattering diarrhoea?

Reality check

Because – and maybe the FSA don’t know this – nobody eats raw chicken. And cooking chicken completely eliminates campylobacter. The whole KFC fast-food franchise succeeds because of it. So do a lot of Sunday lunches, kids lunch boxes – and let’s face it – household budgets. Chicken is probably our No 1 food staple.

Uh huh. But the FSA actually DO have a point about chicken being a health hazard – because campylobacter frequently crops up on the outside of packaging in the supermarket. It’s even known to leak out, dripping onto shelves below and contaminating other products.

The same thing happens at home too – cross-contamination in the refrigerator. Get campylobacter on your lettuce and your stomach will soon know all about it.

Yet for all this, the FSA never says anything about packaging. On the one hand they clobber the producers to reduce a naturally-occurring bacteria. And on the other they hector the rest of us not to wash chicken. Back-splatter will contaminate everyone’s kitchen – and foops, everyone will be writhing and groaning.

Yeah, right. But have you looked at chicken packaging in your supermarket lately?

The El Cheapo stuff is just wrapped in cling-film – yer pays yer money…

Pick it up and it’s dripping all over the place, particularly the whole birds. The premium stuff – and most of the cut choices – goujons, drumsticks and the rest – are packed on foam or polyethylene trays, then vacuum sealed. So leak-proof packaging does exist – why doesn’t the FSA enforce it?

And to prove that the industry is on side, in some supermarkets, there is even a prominent sticker DO NOT WASH – the FSA war-cry for at least the last two years.

Collision course

Which is exactly where our crusading Food Standards Agency runs head-on into the stern and often dire warnings of Dr Dame Sally Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer.

Yeah, do not wash chicken, you can see the logic.

But consider the whole principle of DO NOT WASH – and you can feel the hackles rise.

Because Dame Sally’s rapidly snowballing headache at the moment is antibiotic resistance – the fact that a whole slew of killer superbugs are becoming immune to whatever miracle drugs we might throw at them. The Drugs Don’t Work is even the title of her book on the subject.

Without effective antibiotics to protect us, modern medicine comes to a shuddering, grinding stall. Slightly more of a crisis than food poisoning from chicken.

Which is why Dame Sally is tirelessly at it, warning us of the over-dependence on antibiotics – and urging us all to do the one thing that can minimise our exposure potential to deadly superbugs – WASH EVERYTHING.

The ew factor

With good reason. Dame Sally knows that day-to-day, our own sloppy hygiene is probably the biggest hazard we face. The facts are horrendous, yet we all smile sheepishly and shrug them away. A&E will sort it. A quick shot of amoxicillin or whatever and we’ll be right.

As if.

Kinda critical handling chicken.

And there is no way to avoid handling it – like getting it out of the packaging for a start. Then chopping it, trimming it, slicing it, whatever the recipe calls for.

Don’t wash the chicken, right. But if you want to avoid the tummy cramps, better scrub that chopping board, counter top, serving platter and trimming knife within an inch of its life – and your hands of course.

Which you should do anyway. Because it’s not just possible campylobacter you have to scrub off, it’s the likelihood of all the other bad guys as well – escherichia coli, salmonella, clostridium difficile, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or just plain norovirus – take your pick.

Rediscover hygiene

So – wash or not wash?

Frankly, our money’s on Dame Sally.

If we’re going to get through this, we’ve got to be germ-free and clean. No way we can achieve that without soap and water. But there isn’t any available in most supermarkets.

OK then, carry antiseptic wipes – and hope the FSA gets on the packaging case soon.

Just don’t hold your breath.

Picture Copyright: konstantynov / 123RF Stock Photo

Chicken is OK to eat, as long as you’re careful

Girl with chicken
There’s a problem with chicken? I never knew there was a problem with chicken

Well, here we are.

One week on from Food Safety Week – one week on from the 2015 Chicken Challenge – and most of us are still alive. A roll of drumsticks please!

Yep, we’re learning.

Doing the bold thing

Thanks to sterling efforts by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), we’re all making the effort to avoid food poisoning from chicken by:

  • keeping raw chicken separate from other all other food, where it can’t drip or leak on the bottom shelf of the fridge
  • not washing raw chicken or splashing water from it around as this spreads highly contagious campylobacter germs
  • actively washing everything that’s been in contact with raw chicken to remove germs from cutting boards, utensils, and of course hands – all with plenty of soap and hot water
  • ensuring chicken is thoroughly cooked through – no more pink meat and juices running clear

Do all these things and we’re safe from the widespread campylobacter bug – the one that causes more of us to have cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea than any other common tummy germ.

Widespread? Oh yes. It’s the UK’s No 1 cause of tummy upsets.

Most birds, all birds

Hardly surprising as around 75% of all poultry has campylobacter resident in its gut. And we are a nation of chicken-eaters – 2.2 million chickens a week, 803 million chickens a year.

That’s a meal of chicken at least once a month for everyone in the UK.

Which has the FSA breathing fire and brimstone that poultry producers and the supermarkets should be doing something about it. They want birds with campylobacter reduced to zero. 280,000 people a year go ill with campylobacter – and this is the Twenty-First Century for goodness sake!

Other people are in on the act too. Like the consumer heavy who said: “It beggars belief that nearly three-quarters of chickens on sale in supermarkets are still infected with this potentially deadly bug and that no retailers have met the FSA’s target.”

Infected?

Healthy as nature intended

Time to get real. You see, 75% of all poultry has campylobacter because it occurs naturally in birds. Their digestive system is not the same as ours, so the bacterium is benign, non-pathogenic, harmless.

Inhabited, yes, but not infected. All these birds are perfectly healthy.

Robbing them of campylobacter could even do them harm.

Besides, we know the dangers and how to fix them, why point a finger at the poultry farmers?

It’s like locking up cows because they get muddy feet. Well of course they do, they eat grass – and in this green, green, rain-drenched UK of ours, grass gets wet all the time, so mud is inevitable.

But we don’t penalise the cows for muddy feet – just like we don’t penalise chickens for having campylobacter.

We have a defence

Heat through pasteurisation kills the germs in milk – and heat through cooking kills the germs in chickens.

So yes, it’s right to make a fuss, the FSA is right. But not by controlling the birds.

By fixing the packaging.

By protecting us from any leaks or contamination from raw chicken meat, right through to the cooked birds which are harmless.

And yes, right now most packaging is pretty manky. Rack ’em, stack ’em, and pack ’em bargain basement stuff that leaks all over the place – no wonder we come down with the bug.

About the best are cook-in-the-bag prepared recipes. Safe because the chicken and all ingredients are sealed in to make sure the recipe works.

But check out any of the El Cheapo packs of wings and drumsticks – it’s a whole other story.

And if that stuff leaks on your other shopping, on in the fridge when you finally get it home, the family could be in for a really ropey few days.

Time for action

Yeah, so come on FSA – hit those guys hard for better packaging and everybody will be better off.

Until then though, don’t take chances. Keep your chicken in its own separate plastic wrapping away from everything else – and don’t forget to wash your hands. (Tweet this)

Bon appetit!

Nobody eats raw chicken, so why the problems?

Girl shrugs shoulders
If all birds have the bug and cooking
kills it, they’re all safe to eat, right?

280,000 problems to be exact.

That’s the number of people who come down with campylobacter in a year – a really yucky stomach upset that makes you super-queasy, gives you the runs, and triggers some of the worst cramps you’ve ever experienced.

UK’s biggest villain

According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA ), campylobacter is far and away the UK’s biggest cause of food poisoning. Worse than its nasty friends norovirus, salmonella and e.coli – all horrible bugs that you get from eating something.

That means chicken if you’re unfortunate enough to catch campylobacter. An unpleasant stomach upset that can take you out for three days, even cause paralysis and death.

And the FSA is right to jump up and down about it.

Around 75% of poultry has it – chickens, turkeys, a lot of other animals too. It lives naturally in their gut without harm, probably even helping with digestion – like lactobacillus does in our own systems.

Trouble is, our metabolisms are quite different to chickens. What’s good for you goose is not good for you gander – once campylobacter gets loose in your digestive system, you’re in for a roller-coaster tough time.

Uh huh. So if if 75% of poultry has it, why don’t we crash out with campylobacter all the time?

The heat is on

Because, lucky us, all traces of campylobacter are completely destroyed by cooking. (Tweet this) Once the meat is no longer pink and the juices run clear, that chicken is safe to eat for everyone.

Kinda vital when you remember that chicken is one of our least expensive and popular foods – in everything from fast food to posh nosh.

But this campylobacter stuff is a mean player. It’s highly contagious, and just one drop of moisture or juices from a contaminated bird is enough to bring down a whole restaurant.

Which is why the FSA is continually jumping up and down about NOT washing raw chicken. The water you use and the splashes it makes are all contaminated.

So are utensils you might use – chopping boards and work surfaces too – which is why washing them down thoroughly is essential.

Hand hygiene

Your hands too, of course.

We’re none of us as sharp as we should be with hand hygiene, and forgetting to wash probably causes more illnesses throughout the country than anything else. Campylobacter alone costs us around £900 million a year in NHS treatment and lost productivity.

OK, so don’t wash raw chicken. Don’t eat it either. Common sense really. Like don’t eat unshelled seafood or unpeeled fruit – doing that will make you sick too.

Even so, a lot of people keep getting sick – so the FSA also jump up and down about controlling poultry production and why don’t supermarkets insist on only trouble-free birds?

Er, excuse us – totally, utterly wrong.

Blame the packaging

75% of all birds – we’re talking 2.2 million birds a week here. That’s how many we eat – more popular than fish and chips. Chicken tikka masala, right?

Culling that lot and starting again would bankrupt the industry – and push shopping budgets through the roof.

The nation’s Number One popular food suddenly at premium prices – they’ll have your guts for garters, mate!

Much more sense to target the packaging. Easier to control too.

Walk into Aldi, and you’ll see whole chickens have the label DON’T WASH RAW CHICKEN. That’s a good start. Add a warning that it must also be properly cooked and we’re getting somewhere.

But walk into ANY supermarket and just look the packaging. Most of the time, its shrink-wrapped onto a styrene tray, not even vacuum-sealed. Not good, Jim.

Distributed like that, any liquids from the product can leak. Onto others in the refrigerated lorry. Onto others in the display cabinets. Onto others in your fridge at home.

And one drop is all it takes – wow, wow, wow, campylobacter for the whole family.

Not from the chicken, which was properly cooked and enjoyed. But from the splash of liquid that fell onto the fresh tomatoes you had in the vegetable drawer underneath.

A bad dose of that and they’ll have to pump your stomach at A&E.

An un-problem really

Properly cooked, chicken is not a problem – look at KFC.  The same sourced chicken as all other supermarkets in UK, and campylobacter doesn’t happen.

So most birds have campylobacter, get over it.

And even if you could isolate the “clean” ones, how are you going to prevent contamination from others – cull all the robins and sparrows and blackbirds too?

Insist on sealed, leak-proof packaging and the problem goes away.

Nobody eats raw chicken. Period.

Which brings the real problem right back to washing hands and everything you use to prep the food with.

Clean or else

They should make it a law – wash everything properly, or you could die.

Hey, wait a minute, that’s already true!

One chance too many and out we go, feet first.

We have been warned.

Camp chicken, ooh – the runs that could kill you

Girl with tummy cramps
You wash your hands,
you wash the chicken for
dinner, why is this happening?

You don’t want to play with this one.

It’s our No 1 cause of food poisoning and you get it from bacteria in raw chicken.

“Campylobacter” is not easy to say.

It’s not easy to stomach either. A week of cramps and diarrhoea are the norm – you can even die from it.

And it’s so potent, ONE DROP of water or juice from a raw chicken is enough to infect someone.

Hurry up and wait

Thing is, nobody’s doing anything about it – basically just running round like chickens with their heads chopped off.

Banging the drum are the Food Standards Agency, who quite rightly alert us to how dangerous campylobacter is and the dangers of handling raw chicken. Their tips and hints for playing safe are first-class and should keep anyone out of trouble.

At the same time they are blaming the supermarkets, moaning that the big chains are doing little or nothing to stop campylobacter occurring in the product they sell.

Uh huh. A hello birdie moment for the FSA, because realistically there’s not a lot supermarkets can do to pressure their suppliers.

Because there’s not much the growers can do either.

Natural in birds

The facts of life are that the campylobacter bacterium is NOT pathogenic in birds. It lives in them quite naturally and they are not affected. It’s a normal condition, like human beings have dandruff.

Which means around 70% of all commercially reared chickens are probably positive for it – enough to bankrupt the industry if forced to destroy them.

Besides, imagine the problems of isolating a flock of unaffected birds.

Tighten up biosecurity, yes. But one drop of moisture – one waft of wind-borne campylobacter molecules – would be enough to contaminate the whole lot. A near impossible task to an industry that has to supply up to 2.2 million birds a week.

Stop campylobacter in chickens?

Get real.

If such a major chunk of birds are affected, the FSA should either ban them outright or wish for the moon.

The real issue

Because for safety’s sake, it has to be assumed that ALL birds have it.

A total switcheroo on the problem.

Because then, it’s not the breeding of birds that’s the issue.

It’s the hygiene standards of how they’re prepared for market. Exactly where the FSA has the high ground and the muscle.

So why aren’t THEY doing something about it?

Step one would be to enforce that chicken may only be distributed in leak-proof packaging. Any fluid or moisture in the product would be contained and unable to contaminate fridges or storage areas in the supply chain.

Step two is for the FSA warnings to get some teeth. Boldly displayed on all chicken packaging, together with advice about handling raw product, avoiding exposure, and the hazards of cross-contamination.

If we’re that worried about it, the technology probably even exists for a low-cost audio-tag to sound a buzzer or recorded voice warning as soon as the packaging is opened. On a volume of 2.2 million chickens a week, it is certainly possible to develop one.

A solvable problem

And there you have it, campylobacter contained.

Properly warned, the public will know how to handle chicken properly and the problem goes away.

Nobody gets hammered, everybody’s happy, and tummy cramps from barbecuing drumsticks just don’t happen.

Come on FSA, how about it?

Campylobacter: playing chicken with your health

Girl with tummy ache
Forget to wash your hands and you’ll soon know all about it

Nasty, this one.

And one of the main causes of stomach upsets everywhere.

Cramps, fever, diarrhoea, vomiting. You need it like a hole in the head.

Which anyone who catches it probably has, because you get it by being forgetful.

Seriously, yes.

Not always supermarkets

Because you can blame it on the supermarkets, or the poultry farmers who supply them – but ultimately, it’s your own fault. The same as not washing your hands before handling food – carelessness that can make you very ill.

You see, it’s a fact of life that campylobacter lives naturally in the intestines of healthy birds.

Because of that, it’s also found in water, food, soil, or surfaces that have been contaminated with the faeces of these birds or other animals.

It’s highly contagious, so you can get it from other humans too.

Which means not washing your hands explains the hole in your head.

Campylobacter is not a thing to take chances with.

And since it occurs naturally, it’s up to you to take the necessary precautions. (Tweet this)

Safe if you’re careful

Because as long as you’re careful, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy chicken, turkey or any other kind of poultry. As an affordable source of protein, it’s tasty, easy to prepare, liked by almost everyone and pretty well unbeatable.

First off, it’s safest to assume though that campylobacter is always possible, even likely. So if you have to handle raw poultry at all, ALWAYS wash your hands.

That applies to anything it comes in contact with too – knives, chopping boards, counter-tops. While it’s still raw, it contaminates everything.

It pays to keep it separate from other foods you’re preparing too. Cross-contamination before you’ve cooked anything is all too easy.

Once you’ve cooked things of course, the problem goes away. Just make sure it’s grilled, roasted, boiled, stewed or fried enough to make sure any bacteria cannot survive. Heat kills it, so under-done meat is a hazard.

That said, there IS an onus on the poultry farmer to lessen the risk.

Since campylobacter occurs naturally in healthy birds, removing any risk before sales happen must be part of the cost of doing business.

There are already costs in preparing product for market – often right through to customer-ready finished packaging – so ensuring output is safe to eat lies squarely with the producer.

But supermarkets must accept responsibility too – part of due diligence to ensure ALL foodstuffs conform to regulations and are risk free.

Quality control

Besides, who buys any product without checking it, especially five tons of it at a time?

In fact, knowing that campylobacter is an issue right from the beginning of the supply chain, the food industry and the government should probably have some kind of certification that the product has been officially inspected and is campylobacter-free.

Government, yeah.

As if.

So far they’ve got to the strategy workshop. Expect official action within the next ten years or so.

Either that, or the supermarkets should voluntarily take it on themselves.

What home-maker would not be reassured by a sticker on her purchase that the product has passed all health tests and is guaranteed free from all bacteria? Tesco Product Integrity Checked. Worth paying a little extra for, right?

Which makes it one of those where you pay a little more because you know the quality is better. All supermarkets are price-sensitive, but quality issues are the game-changer.

Safety begins at home

All of which should be in ADDITION to your normal health precautions:

  • Don’t handle raw product
  • Wash your hands if you do
  • Wash all utensils and prep areas
  • Keep poultry separate from other foods
  • Never eat it unless it’s properly cooked

It’s keeping healthy by avoiding germs – the best possible way.

You don’t want to be bent double on the loo, or in hospital with dehydration.

Not playing chicken at all.

And weren’t you brought up never to play with your food?