Cutting out Campylobacter

26 October, 2015
Lisa Ackerley

Campylobacter may not have the instant recognition of infections like E. coli, but it is the most common form of food poisoning in the UK and in the worst cases, it can be fatal. In an effort to eliminate the risks of this preventable public health threat, the Food Standards Agency has launched a campaign to encourage both the supply chain and consumers to take action and lower the risk.

There were more than 72,000 confirmed lab reports of people suffering from campylobacter poisoning last year, and the estimated true figure may be as much as 280,000.  At current levels, it is thought that around one third of the UK population will suffer from Campylobacter at some point in their lives. Estimates indicate that it causes over 100 deaths a year and the cost of the UK economy is around £900 million. With that in mind, the FSA are understandably taking direct action to negate this burden to the public health purse.

Campylobacter is a silent assassin. You can’t see it, smell it or even taste it on food, but if it affects you, you won’t forget it. Campylobacter poisoning usually develops a few days after consuming contaminated food and leads to symptoms that include abdominal pain, severe diarrhoea and vomiting, It can last for between 2 and 10 days and can be particularly severe in small children and the elderly. In some cases, it can affect you forever – sparking off irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), reactive arthritis and in rare cases, Guillain-Barré syndrome – a serious and sometimes permanent condition of the nervous system.

Campylobacter can be found in the intestinal tract of cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, wild birds and domestic pets. It can be transmitted to humans via animal faeces and contaminated meat. Four out of five reported cases in the UK are associated with the consumption of contaminated poultry.

Campylobacter is particularly prevalent in the gut of poultry where it can grow to high levels without causing any illness in the animal. It is therefore difficult to control in the chicken production chain, and a survey carried out for the Food Standards Agency has identified that around 73% of fresh whole chickens on retail sale in the UK are contaminated with Campylobacter.

The FSA suggests taking the following steps to avoid infection in the home:

  • Cover and chill raw chicken: Cover raw chicken and store at the bottom of the fridge so juices cannot drip on to other foods and contaminate them with food poisoning bacteria.
  • Don’t wash raw chicken: Thorough cooking will kill any bacteria present, including campylobacter, while washing chicken can spread germs around the kitchen by splashing.
  • Wash hands and used utensils: Thoroughly wash and clean all utensils, chopping boards and surfaces used to prepare raw chicken. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling raw chicken.
  • Cook chicken thoroughly: Make sure chicken is steaming hot all the way through before serving. Cut into the thickest part of the meat and check that it is steaming hot with no pink meat and that the juices run clear.

Dr Lisa Ackerley Strategic Adviser to the Acoura board makes further suggestions:

Check the temperature with a food thermometer and make sure the thickest part of the chicken reaches 75 °C – that will kill the Campylobacter. Thermometers need not cost a lot of money – you can get one from our affiliated shop. 

Utensils and surfaces that have been contaminated during raw chicken preparation need to be disinfected – either using heat or a chemical. This need not be complicated – use an anti-bacterial spray, leave for a minute or two and then wipe with a paper towel, or place items in the dishwasher on a hot wash.

When washing hands you need to pay attention to your nails and all parts of the hands that may be dirty – Campylobacter is infectious in such small doses you don’t want leave any on your hands or under your nails. It is quite possible that many cases of campylobacter are self-inflicted – by the person preparing the chicken not washing their hands properly and licking their fingers or biting their nails. See this video for more. 

Don’t wash raw chicken packaging prior to recycling – it would cause the same amount of contamination risk as washing a chicken!

For more information, see food.gov.uk/actnow 

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