Campylobacter – the bad bug on chicken

If you are eating chicken, I can only hope you cooked it well. Surely you washed your hands after touching the raw chicken. And the most important, you didn’t use the same cutting board and knife to prepare vegetables to be eaten without further heating. If you didn’t follow those simple rules you might regret it in a few days time. I’ll tell you why.

Common food poisoning

The twisted Campylobacter (Photo: Wikimedia)

The twisted Campylobacter (Photo: Wikimedia)

Campylobacter is a twisted bacteria, actually literally since this is the meaning of the name and the way it looks. It is the most frequently reported bacterial zoonosis in many countries. Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. The diarrhea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The illness typically lasts about one week.

On rare occasions there are some long-term consequences of this infection beginning several weeks after the diarrheal illness. Some people develop arthritis. Others develop a rare disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome that affects the nerves of the body resulting in paralysis and requiring intensive medical care. It is estimated that approximately one in every 1,000 reported campylobacter illnesses leads to Guillain-Barré syndrome.

The drop in the ocean

With that out of the way I hope you are sufficiently alerted to continue reading.

Chicken meat is the most common source of campylobacter in most countries. But you always cook chicken well you say. But here’s the thing, it only takes less than 500 campylobacter organisms to make you sick. Even one drop of juice from raw chicken meat can carry enough campylobacter to infect a person! One way to become infected is to cut raw poultry meat on a cutting board, and then use the unwashed cutting board or utensil to prepare vegetables or other raw or lightly cooked foods. The campylobacter organisms from the raw meat get onto the other foods. And you get sick.

This has been known for a long time but not much has been done about it. In Denmark some years ago, a study of food handling behaviour showed that young males after leaving home had the riskiest kitchen practices. Maybe they had no interest in the home economics topic at school.

New Zealand has been affected most badly by campylobacteriosis. And they had to do something. In the early 1980s campylobacteriosis became a notifiable disease in New Zealand and evolution of the disease could be followed. At a peak in 2006 the disease affected around 350 people out of every 100,000 of the population. That year a number of voluntary and regulatory interventions to reduce campylobacter contamination of poultry was introduced by government and industry. And two years later the rate of the disease had more than halved. This apparent success proved that it is possible to produce chicken meat with a much reduced campylobacter contamination rate.

So what is the rest of the world doing?

Chicken commonly carry Campylobacter (Photo: Jack Letourneau)

Chicken commonly carry Campylobacter (Photo: Jack Letourneau)

Campylobacteriosis is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to affect over 1.3 million persons every year in the USA, killing around 76 persons. In 2011, campylobacter was found on 47% of raw chicken samples bought in grocery stores and tested through the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System. That year USDA established performance standards to limit campylobacter contamination of whole broiler chickens in processing plants. However, the effect of USDA’s action is uncertain since campylobacteriosis continued to increase in the following year by 14%.

The European Food Safety Authority has calculated that the actual number of cases of campylobacteriosis is around nine million each year in the European Union. This would amount to a cost of around €2.4 billion a year to public health systems and to lost productivity. But firm action at the EU level is still wanting.

Some individual EU countries have introduced counter measures. For example, in Denmark, ‘campylobacter-free’ chicken meat can be marketed at a premium price, providing that it comes from flocks that meet required monitoring standards. So the young male adults in Denmark might now be on safer ground.

In January 2013, the UK’s Food Standards Agency warned that two-thirds of all raw chicken bought from UK shops was contaminated with campylobacter, affecting an estimated half a million people annually and killing approximately 100. A campylobacter risk management programme has been developed to reduce levels of campylobacter in chicken. A target has been set for the industry to reduce the numbers of the most contaminated birds in UK poultry houses from 27% to 10% by 2015. It is estimated that achievement of this target could mean a reduction in campylobacter food poisoning of up to 30%.

The cost of action

Money talks (Photo: epSos.de)

Money talks (Photo: epSos.de)

Of course it is a cost involved in reducing campylobacter contamination of chicken in the first place. In a Dutch study, industry data on campylobacter contamination of chicken carcasses were collected from 16 plants. Based on these data, the risk for consumers of campylobacteriosis was calculated per plant and per year, using a published risk assessment model. As a baseline scenario, a critical limit of 1,000 campylobacter organisms per gram of breast-and neck-skin was modelled, with the model predicting a reduction in consumer risk of around 70%.

Economic analysis suggested that implementing such a limit would be highly cost-effective from a societal point of view. The costs to the Dutch poultry industry were estimated in the order of €2 million per year whereas the benefits to the Dutch economy were in the order of €9 million per year.

Who should bear the cost?

So isn’t it time that the chicken industry carried responsibility for the product they sell? Why should it be the consumer’s responsibility to treat chicken meat as a potential time bomb? I just ask the question. Over to the industry. The New Zealand experience has shown what is possible. It’s only a matter of money.

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