Salmonella contamination in chickens on shop shelves in the UK has dropped to the lowest level ever recorded - meeting the Food Standards Agency's reduction target well ahead of schedule, according to figures released today.

Last year, the Agency announced its aim to reduce salmonella in chickens on retail sale in the UK by 50 percent within five years. At the time, studies indicated levels of salmonella to be up to about 20 percent. Latest figures, based on a survey carried out between April and June, show levels have dropped to an average of 5.8 percent across the UK.

The survey also looked at contamination levels of campylobacter in retail chickens. These show that there is much work to be done to tackle this bug - but industry is already working with the Agency to identify ways of dealing with it.

Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, Sir John Krebs, welcomed the news about salmonella.

Sir John said:

"This is very good news for consumers, and industry. It shows that the stringent control measures being used by industry are starting to bite in the battle against salmonella.

"We now need to make sure these measures are maintained. Salmonella levels in chickens on shop shelves in the UK have plummeted, but nobody can afford to be complacent."

The Agency asked researchers to test fresh and frozen, domestic and imported retail chickens for levels of salmonella and campylobacter. The results have not shown any significant difference between domestically produced and imported chickens.

A preliminary analysis of the results showed the following levels:

Salmonella - UK average 5.8%

England
Wales
Scotland
Northern Ireland
5.6%
3.6%
8.9%
5.4%


Campylobacter - UK average 50%

England
Wales
Scotland
Northern Ireland
46%
42%
75%
77%

It is not possible to explain the reason for the difference in results between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, although the Agency will be looking at this in more detail. It should be noted that these breakdowns reflect country of purchase not country of origin.

Reducing campylobacter is an essential part of the Agency's commitment to cut food poisoning cases in the UK by 20% by 2006, also announced last year. This bug is the single biggest identified cause of food poisoning in the UK.

Sir John said:

"Levels of campylobacter in chickens are far too high. This is partly because not enough is known about this bug. There is clearly still a lot of work to be done here - but we and industry are addressing the problem. The bottom line is that we will not succeed in reducing foodborne illness if we don't tackle campylobacter.

"This reinforces the Agency's advice that everybody needs to be careful about handling, cooking and storing raw chicken properly to avoid cross contamination and kill any bugs that may be present."

The Agency plans to launch its food hygiene campaign later this year which will set the ball rolling on its bid to cut food poisoning cases in the UK. In addition to working with industry, the campaign will highlight basic food hygiene messages for consumers and caterers, such as using separate knives and cutting boards for raw meat and other foods and washing hands before touching food that is ready to eat.

Summary of the survey

Click here for a breakdown of results from the survey