Sunday, 30 November 2014

Contaminated Chicken - Britain's Latest Food Scare

It seems Britain's highly-industrialised food production industry just can't get it right. In the last few years we've been scandalised (technical term meaning whipped up into a frenzy of indignation by the tabloid press) by salmonella in eggs, mad cow disease, and horsemeat being passed off as beef. Last week, a report by the Food Standards Agency was issued detailing high levels of contamination of supermarket chicken by the campylobacter virus. Apparently, chicken sold by the major supermarket chains has contamination rates ranging from 64% (Tesco) to 78% (Asda).

This is clearly a very serious issue, given that in the UK campylobacter causes about 280,000 cases of sickness each year and about 100 deaths. But the expected sh*tstorm doesn't seem to have happened yet.

So should we stop eating chicken? No. The problem isn't the chicken itself - the virus is killed by cooking. The real problem is cross-contamination that happens when you handle the bird. The virus can spread to your chopping board, your hands, your cook's knife, your kitchen sink if you (inadvisedly) wash the chicken. And from there it can enter your body via the bread you cut with your contaminated knife on your contaminated chopping board. You might get some jam or some mayonnaise on your contaminated fingers, which you sneakily lick off. You might dry the area around your contaminated sink with a dishcloth, and from there you'll contaminate anything that comes into contact with the cloth - cutlery, crockery, etc.

So you see, it really is a mess. Solutions proposed by the supermarkets include: cook-in-the-bag chicken, where you never actually touch the raw flesh; better hygiene in abbatoirs and processing plants, including more frequent changes of overalls and boots; leakproof packaging so that contaminated blood and juice doesn't drip all over everything in your fridge.

It's all a bit scary, isn't it. But what people (and restaurants) need to do is what they should have been doing all along - thoroughly wash anything that comes into contact with raw chicken. If you must dry these things, do not use a cloth - use disposable paper towels. Just proper, basic, kitchen hygiene.

Although why the poultry producers and processors can't just shoot any virus they see before it gets to you is beyond me.

Here endeth the lecture.

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