Study: One In Five Chickens Contaminated
One in five supermarket chickens is contaminated with the food poisoning bacteria campylobacter, according to an investigation - spurring claims of "scaremongering" by a retail consortium.
The study involved poultry bought from nine of the UK's major supermarkets by the Which? consumer group.
As well as 18% of the samples containing campylobacter, 17% of them were contaminated with listeria, with salmonella present in 1.5% of the 192 chickens tested.
Whole chickens and chicken portions - standard, free range and organic, and all reared in the UK - were tested.
They came from Aldi, Asda, The Co-operative, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose.
Bacterial contamination was found in samples from each of the retailers.
But Which? stressed the study was a "snapshot" as it tested each retailer on two days in different locations, and was therefore unable to definitively conclude that chicken from one supermarket was better than that from another.
Sky News contacted all nine of the supermarkets tested in the survey. Most of them referred us to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
The BRC's food director Andrew Opie said: "Which? is scaremongering. Campylobacter is completely killed by normal cooking so providing people prepare chicken properly and follow sensible hygiene practices they're at no risk."
He went on: "To talk about campylobacter contamination is misleading. It's a naturally occurring bacteria which lives inside healthy chickens, as well as other pets and animals.
"Retailers, farmers and meat producers are all working together, along with the Government, on ways to reduce its presence. There's been massive progress in recent years but scientists are still learning more about the organism and how best to deal with it."
That statement appeared to be backed up by the Which? figures. They showed a marked improvement in 2009, when the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found (in a similar but not directly comparable test) that 65% of chickens were contaminated with campylobacter at the point of sale.
Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, according to the FSA. It is found mainly in poultry, but also in red meat, unpasteurised milk and untreated water.
In 2009, it was responsible for over 371,000 cases of food poisoning, including 88 deaths.
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: "We want to see the risk of contamination minimised at every stage of production, because for far too long consumers have been expected to clean up mistakes made earlier in the supply chain."
British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock said: "This report makes it clear that chicken is a safe and healthy product when properly cooked.
"These welcome findings show a big reduction in campylobacter presence on chicken, demonstrating the effectiveness of the biosecurity measures being taken by producers and processors against this naturally occurring bacteria."
Lidl issued a separate statement to Sky News saying: "All farms used to produce our fresh poultry range are members of the Assured Food Standards scheme for poultry, commonly known as the Red Tractor scheme, and are subject to independent third-party audits.
"Scheme members have to conform to requirements beyond base legal requirements to maintain accreditation.
"Furthermore, all slaughtering sites used to produce our fresh poultry range are BRC accredited and therefore undergo third-party audits to ensure they conform to the BRC standard."
A spokesperson from The Co-operative Food said: "We are committed to providing customers with safe and healthy foods, and we are working with the Government and the rest of the industry to reduce the presence of this bacteria in chicken.
"However, it is important to stress that chicken that has been cooked properly is perfectly safe to eat. This is a naturally occurring bacteria, which is killed when chicken is prepared and cooked properly."
As a basic guide to food safety regarding chicken, it is vital to cook it thoroughly - the inside must be hot with no pink visible, and juices must run clear. Cooking at temperatures above 70C (165F) will kill bacteria.