Superbugs resistant to antibiotics have been found to be increasingly present in fresh supermarket chicken, according to a new Food Standards Agency (FSA) study.

The FSA has tested over 4,000 chicken samples over the last ten years.  The report revealed higher proportions of the superbug campylobacter, the most common bacteria causing human bacterial gastroenteritis, or food poisoning.

Research indicated that campylobacter found in chicken products was resistant to the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin. The study included additional tests on two specific strains of the bacteria; campylobacter jejuni, which resisted antibiotics in 54% of cases, and campylobacter coli, which was resistant 48% of the time.

The FSA concluded: “This survey provides evidence that anti-microbial resistant (AMR) campylobacter are to be found on whole fresh chickens sold at retail in the UK. It is therefore important to handle chicken hygienically and cook thoroughly to reduce the risk to public health.”

The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics scientific adviser Cóilín Nunan spoke of the well-documented history of evidence surrounding the antibiotic issue, questioning the lack of investigatory measures from the relevant authorities. In a statement to the Guardian he said: “It is scandalous that [government rules] still allow for poultry to be mass-medicated with fluoroquinolone antibiotics. Twenty years ago, a House of Lords report said this should be stopped. Even the US banned the practice over 10 years ago because of the strength of the scientific evidence. So why are British and European authorities still refusing to take action?”

In response to the discovery of growing levels of campylobacter in chickens from a similar study, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Centre for Disease Prevention jointly recommended: “Given the high levels of resistance to fluoroquinolones in broilers [chickens bred for meat], and the assessment that a large proportion of human campylobacteriosis infections comes from the handling, preparation and consumption of broiler meat, this is a compelling example of how antimicrobial resistance in food and animals may impact the availability of effective antimicrobial agents for treating severe human campylobacter infections.”

In 2017 Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Asda revealed that the levels of antibiotics used in their chicken and pork products was lower than the industry average. This meant that, in 2016, the total level of antibiotics used to routinely treat animals fell below the 50mg/kg target set by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, a UK government agency responsible for protecting animal health.

Following the supermarkets’ announcement Nunan was in favour of further research, stating: “We are also calling for all supermarkets to publish antibiotic-use data by farming system, so that consumers can compare free-range and organic farming with indoor farming and intensive systems.”