Research due to be published today by Which? magazine is expected to herald the latest in a long line of consumer panics over the safety of food on UK supermarket shelves.

The Consumer Association tested 316 samples of raw, fresh chicken products from five of the country’s major supermarkets and found that around one fifth of those surveyed were contaminated with bugs that can cause food poisoning. Two serious bugs, salmonella and campylobacter, were present in 16% of the meat pieces sampled, but experts warn that this figure may underestimate the true extent of contamination because the tests used are not the most sensitive.

Practically a quarter of all food poisoning outbreaks during recent years have been attributed to contaminated poultry, and the Food Standards Agency had promised to slash “unacceptable” levels of poisoning by 20% before 2006. The Consumer Associations’ findings at Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Safeway will not do much however to convince consumers that authorities are taking the matter seriously enough.

Of the supermarkets tested, the worst results came from Sainsbury’s and Safeway, where the chicken samples were contaminated by 22% and 21% respectively.  A statement from Sainsbury’s argued that “Our own continuous monitoring shows that the figures are much lower (for salmonella, less than 10%) based on a much larger scale survey and through our own surveillance programme.” It added, “This is a widespread industry issue and all the major retailers use similar suppliers.”

Safeway was similarly incredulous at the results: “Safeway sets high standards for our suppliers, who run regular tests for salmonella and campylobacter, and in addition we perform regular tests ourselves using an independent, nationally accredited microbiology laboratory.”

Chicken from Tesco was meanwhile least likely to be contaminated, with results finding that just 6% contained potentially poisoning bugs. “Tesco is clearly taking better precautions to try and prevent contaminated chickens being sold to consumers,” said Which? editor Helen Parker. “Other supermarkets need to be more vigilant to prevent food poisoning incidences.”

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Even more worrying for consumers, perhaps, are the results of an undercover visit conducted by Which? to a chicken slaughterhouse. An investigator found chickens stacked on top of each other, with faeces dropping down and spreading bacteria freely. The magazine reports that water in a tank used to dunk the chickens and make their feathers easier to remove is only changed once a day, and covered with a filthy brown scum for the majority of the time. The article says that “chickens left over after the firm had sent out the day’s orders were rewrapped the next day with a new sell-by date.”

Experts believe that these practises are widespread, and not simply confined to the one slaughterhouse Which? visited. The Consumers Association commented: “Chickens aren’t born with salmonella or campylobacter, they catch it. This can happen at any stage in the food chain.” This means that free-range and organic chickens are just as likely to be contaminated as others.

For the British public however, news that the authorities understand the causes of food poisoning is not enough to reassure them. Confused about the food safety consequences of the rapidly spreading foot and mouth disease among the nation’s pigs and cattle, and still unsure about beef after the extent of BSE became apparent, the news that poultry is also unsafe will hit consumers and the meat industry hard. 

Food hygiene laws are currently being reviewed by the EU and officials are stressing the establishment of a new European Food Authority will help to crack down on incidence of food poisoning.