A new study suggests that 98% of chicken produced in Ireland is contaminated with a potentially harmful bacteria, which is the most common cause of food-borne illness here.

The study by the European Food Safety Agency also says Irish chicken had the second highest incidence of the bacteria, campylobacter, among 26 EU countries in 2008.

The level of incidence in Ireland was nearly one-third higher than the European average.

Commenting on the findings, the FSAI said a study it is in the process of completing has found that 13% of external surface packaging on chicken products and 11% of retail display cabinets were contaminated with campylobacter.

The FSAI reiterated its call to the Irish retail sector to source chicken products from producers using leak-proof packaging solutions, or to provide customers with specific bags to prevent leakage of potentially contaminated poultry juices.

The chief executive of the FSAI, Prof Alan O'Reilly, said the findings of both studies would feed into a campylobacter control programme in Irish chicken, currently being worked on by the agency and the Government.

He reminded caterers and retailers of their legal obligation to use good hygienic practice to prevent cross contamination.

He said consumers could protect themselves by using separate bags for poultry products when shopping, washing hands after handling raw poultry, storing raw poultry separately from other foods in the fridge and thoroughly cooking poultry before eating.

According to the FSAI, campylobacter infections can cause acute gastroenteritis with diarrhoea and/or vomiting. It can be severe and life threatening in vulnerable people, such as the very young, the elderly and those with underlying conditions.

It is now the number-one cause of food poisoning in Ireland, with 1,758 cases in 2008 and provisional data showing 1,823 reported cases in 2009.

Internationally, it is estimated one-third of cases occur as a result of handling and preparation of raw poultry and the consumption of undercooked poultry.

Campylobacter is a naturally occurring bacterium found in the intestinal tract of livestock and poultry.

The danger from the bacteria can be removed by thoroughly cooking the meat and by the prevention of cross contamination with raw meat and ready to eat foods.