Campylobacter in the headlines

Chicken a time bomb for campylobacteriosis (Photo: Eyal Bairey)

Chicken a time bomb for campylobacteriosis (Photo: Eyal Bairey)

You’re a brave soul, you’ve just bought raw chicken to cook for dinner. You tremble a bit when you start opening the meat tray, but with gloves on and mouth protection you feel relatively safe. The difficulty is not to spill any fluid on the kitchen bench and to make sure that the cutting board and utensils used are promptly put into the dishwasher. With a sigh of relief everything is in hand, chicken in the frying pan and gloves in the garbage bin. You can’t be sure but the next few days will prove if you’ve been successful and protected the family from campylobacteriosis.

Leading cause of gastroenteritis

Campylobacteriosis is a leading cause of human gastroenteritis in the developed world and has been estimated to cost the society around US$4 billion annually in the USA alone. As the name of the disease implies, it is caused by Campylobacter species, literally curved rods, a reflection of the Greek meaning of the name and the way they look. Campylobacter jejuni is the dominating species causing 90% of human campylobacteriosis, with most of the rest caused by Campylobacter coli, both ubiquitous in nature and found in the gut of farm animals where they thrive at temperatures between 37 to 42℃ causing very few ill effects.

Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhoea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. Foodborne illness caused by Campylobacter can be severely debilitating, but is rarely life-threatening. The diarrhoea 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, called sequelae, 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.

Chicken the most common source

Only 500 Campylobacter organisms needed to get ill (Photo: ARS)

Only 500 Campylobacter organisms needed to get ill (Photo: ARS)

Chicken meat is the most common source of campylobacteriosis in most countries. 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. The most common way of getting infected is to cut raw poultry meat on a cutting board, and then use the unwashed cutting board or utensils to prepare vegetables or other raw or lightly cooked foods. The Campylobacter organisms from the raw meat thus get onto the other foods through cross-contamination. So now you can see that the precautions suggested above is not completely crazy.

Finding Campylobacter bugs on chicken carcasses is nothing new, what is new is the recent publicity in the UK. There was no publicity ten years ago when around 1,000 raw poultry products were purchased from butcher shops, supermarkets, and specialty stores in New South Wales and South Australia and Campylobacter was found on 87.8 and 93.2% of the carcasses in the respective state. As a matter of fact the then Minister put the lid on the findings and they were later only allowed to be published in a scientific journal without much attention. Although the UK Food Standards Agency tried to do the same, they had to relent to public pressure. Now we know that following six months of testing, an average of 70% of supermarket chickens proved positive for Campylobacter on samples of skin in the UK supermarkets. Admittedly, the number of bugs on each carcass can be quite low, but in the UK case they found that 18% of the nearly 2,000 chickens tested contained the highest levels of Campylobacter that easily can make people sick.

Possible to reduce contamination

This is just not good enough. New Zealand has been affected most badly by campylobacteriosis. 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 were 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.

Let’s demand that the chicken sold irrespective of country should be free of Campylobacter to the extent possible. It is ridiculous the way that farmers have been pressured to reduce costs and take shortcuts to be competitive. It is time for the whole industry to shape up and invest in sustainable production practices. It might make chicken slightly more expensive but it will save money in the long run for the society as a whole.

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