In this study we estimated how frequently Salmonella spp. were present in frozen, breaded or battered chicken products, intended to be cooked before consumption, on retail sale in the UK between April and July 2021.
Frozen, breaded, ready-to-cook chicken products have been implicated in outbreaks of salmonellosis. Some of these outbreaks can be large. For example, one outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis involved 193 people in nine countries between 2018 and 2020, of which 122 cases were in the UK. These ready-to-cook products have a browned, cooked external appearance, which may be perceived as ready-to-eat, leading to mishandling or undercooking by consumers. Continuing concerns about these products led FSA to initiate a short-term (four month), cross-sectional surveillance study undertaken in 2021 to determine the prevalence of Salmonella spp., Escherichia coli and antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in frozen, breaded or battered chicken products on retail sale in the UK.
This study sought to obtain data on AMR levels in Salmonella and E. coli in these products, in line with a number of other FSA instigated studies of the incidence and nature of AMR in the UK food chain, for example, the systematic review (2016).
Between the beginning of April and the end of July 2021, 310 samples of frozen, breaded or battered chicken products containing either raw or partly cooked chicken, were collected using representative sampling of retailers in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on market share data. Samples included domestically produced and imported chicken products and were tested for E. coli (including extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL)-producing, colistin-resistant and carbapenem-resistant E. coli) and Salmonella spp. One isolate of each bacterial type from each contaminated sample was randomly selected for additional AMR testing to determine the minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) for a range of antimicrobials. More detailed analysis based on Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) data was used to further characterise Salmonella spp. isolates and allow the identification of potential links with human isolates.
Salmonella spp. were detected in 5 (1.6%) of the 310 samples and identified as Salmonella Infantis (in three samples) and S. Java (in two samples). One of the S. Infantis isolates fell into the same genetic cluster as S. Infantis isolates from three recent human cases of infection; the second fell into another cluster containing two recent cases of infection. Countries of origin recorded on the packaging of the five Salmonella contaminated samples were Hungary (n=1), Ireland (n=2) and the UK (n=2). One S. Infantis isolate was multi-drug resistant (i.e. resistant to three different classes of antimicrobials), while the other Salmonella isolates were each resistant to at least one of the classes of antimicrobials tested. E. coli was detected in 113 samples (36.4%), with counts ranging from ❤ to >1100 MPN (Most Probable Number)/g. Almost half of the E. coli isolates (44.5%) were susceptible to all antimicrobials tested. Multi-drug resistance was detected in 20.0% of E. coli isolates. E. coli isolates demonstrating the ESBL (but not AmpC) phenotype were detected in 15 of the 310 samples (4.8%) and the AmpC phenotype alone was detected in two of the 310 samples (0.6%) of chicken samples. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing showed that five of the 15 (33.3%) ESBL-producing E. coli carried blaCTX-M genes (CTX-M-1, CTX-M-55 or CTX-M-15), which confer resistance to third generation cephalosporin antimicrobials. One E. coli isolate demonstrated resistance to colistin and was found to possess the mcr-1 gene.
The five Salmonella-positive samples recovered from this study, and 20 similar Salmonella-positive samples from a previous UKHSA (2020/2021) study (which had been stored frozen), were subjected to the cooking procedures described on the sample product packaging for fan assisted ovens. No Salmonella were detected in any of these 25 samples after cooking.
The current survey provides evidence of the presence of Salmonella in frozen, breaded and battered chicken products in the UK food chain, although at a considerably lower incidence than reported in an earlier (2020/2021) study carried out by PHE/UKHSA as part of an outbreak investigation where Salmonella prevalence was found to be 8.8%.
The current survey also provides data on the prevalence of specified AMR bacteria found in the tested chicken products on retail sale in the UK. It will contribute to monitoring trends in AMR prevalence over time within the UK, support comparisons with data from other countries, and provide a baseline against which to monitor the impact of future interventions. While AMR activity was observed in some of the E. coli and Salmonella spp. examined in this study, the risk of acquiring AMR bacteria from consumption of these processed chicken products is low if the products are cooked thoroughly and handled hygienically.