Campylobacter – The Twisted Bacteria
Campylobacter is the main cause of Gastroenteritis in the UK, and is present in an estimated 65% of chickens on retail sale. Find out about this bacteria and how you can keep your food safe…
Though probably one of the lesser known food-borne diseases, Campylobacter is in fact the main cause of Gastroenteritis in the UK, causing an estimated 15,000 hospitalisations and 76 deaths per year.
Its name literally means “twisted bacteria”, and it is so named because of its shape.
One of the predominant reasons it is the main cause of gastroenteritis in the UK is because only a very small number are required to cause illness. Usually about 500 organisms can cause illness but reports have shown that as few as 100, if consumed with milk or other foods which lower the pH of the stomach acid, can cause illness as well.
The incubation period (the time between consumption and first signs of illness) for Campylobacter is usually 2 to 5 days, however, this can vary from as quick as 1 day to as long as 10 days. This incubation period depends upon the health of the person, the number of Campylobacter organisms consumed and various other factors.
Its main symptoms are stomach pains and diarrhoea. Often mucus is excreted in the stool as well (apologises if you are eating whilst reading this!). An additional complication to the already horrible symptoms is reactive arthritis (also known as Reiter’s syndrome).
Campylobacter is a natural part of the gut flora of many animals including birds and reptiles.
A UK-wide survey was undertaken by the Food Standards Agency in 2007/2008 and found that the prevalence of Campylobacter in chicken on retail sale in the UK was 65.2%.
How does it cause illness?
It is most commonly associated with eating undercooked poultry or by eating ready to eat food which has been cross contaminated by Campylobacter from raw poultry/meat.
Another method of contamination is actually from the beaks of birds, typically Magpies, where they have peaked at the bottle tops of milk left on doorsteps. I am sure we have all experienced this at some point if we have our milk delivered. This is one of the reasons it is vital that milk which has been damaged in this way must not be used.
Prevention at source
The Food Standards Agency in partnership with DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and a number of other organisations have developed a risk management program which aims to reduce the levels of Campylobacter in chickens by 2015. There are three categories of severity with regards to contamination that have been identified for use in the program,
- Less than 100 cfu/g*
- 100 – 1000 cfu/g
- More than 1000 cfu/g
*cfu/g standing for colony-forming units per gram
Each category has an individual target to achieve. Currently, 27% of birds are in the highest category. The target is to have this reduced to 10% by 2015. If this program is successful by achieving this target alone will result in a reduction of about 90,000 Campylobacter food poisoning cases a year.
Prevention by food businesses
The sad fact is that at present we should consider many of our raw chickens are naturally contaminated by Campylobacter, and handle this ingredient accordingly.
Here are some simple ways you can avoid Campylobacter:
- Avoid cross contamination
- Keep raw and cooked foods separate at all times
- Clean and disinfect food contact surfaces, equipment and utensils after use for raw food.
- Use separate surfaces, equipment and utensils for raw food where possible.
- Ensure food is cooked thoroughly, especially poultry and meat.
- Wash hands frequently and thoroughly, especially after handling raw foods.
For further information please speak to your STS consultant or visit the Food Standards Agency website at www.food.gov.uk