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Industry isn’t putting its eggs in one basket

08 August 2014

Dr Arnoud van Vliet, head of Campylobacter research group at the Institute of Food Research, looks at the Campylobacter problem and how industry can work together to solve it.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently released figures showing that there were 280,000 reported cases of Campylobacter food poisoning last year, the vast majority of which are caused by consumption of contaminated, undercooked chicken. 

The Campylobacter problem is not unique to the UK; many European countries have a problem with Campylobacter infections, with the EU estimating up to 20 million cases annually. The FSA used the recent Food Safety Week to stress the importance of good kitchen hygiene to consumers, but tackling the underlying problem of Campylobacter in the food chain will need concerted action by all parties involved. And indeed, funders, regulators, producers, retailers and scientists are jointly working to reduce the levels of Campylobacter that enter the food chain.

New figures have shown that 44% of people wash chicken before they cook it, increasing the risk of contracting Campylobacter by spreading the bacteria onto hands, work surfaces, clothing and equipment through the splashing of water droplets.

Around four in five cases of the 280,000 people affected each by Campylobacter come from contaminated poultry. Illness from this foodborne disease can cause irritable bowel syndrome, reactive arthritis and Guillain-Barré syndrome. 

“We are leading a campaign that brings together the whole food chain,” says FSA Chief Executive Catherine Brown. “That includes working with farmers and producers to reduce rates of Campylobacter in flocks of broiler chickens and ensuring that slaughterhouses and processors are tacking steps to minimise the levels of contamination in birds. We are committed to acting on Campylobacter and providing safer foods for the consumer.”

Here at the Institute of Food Research (IFR), we are trying to better understand Campylobacter itself, so we can advise on practical ways of reducing it. Maintaining the highest standards of biosecurity on the farm is very important. Campylobacter is endemic in the environment, especially on farms, and can also be spread by the wild bird population. Without good biosecurity measures, staff can inadvertently introduce Campylobacter from the outside environment, for example during thinning. Once one bird is infected, it will spread rapidly to the whole flock. Reducing flock density can help this, but the reality is that getting Campylobacter-free flocks will be virtually impossible without a vaccine. A vaccine though is highly unlikely as there is such diversity within Campylobacter isolates, making immunity difficult and emergence of new, potentially more virulent types likely. 

Most breeds of poultry do not show visible signs of Campylobacter infection, which hinders detection. The bacterium has evolved alongside chicken, in much the same way that we humans host ‘good’ bacteria, or commensals, in our own gut. Could ‘probiotics’ offer hope? Here at the IFR we think so, and we are planning farm trials of a strain of probiotic bacteria that could compete with Campylobacter, significantly reducing it from the guts of chickens. If successful, this could be developed into a feed additive, which also protects against Clostridium perfringens, the cause of necrotic enteritis in poultry. 

Despite the best efforts of industry, it is unlikely that Campylobacter will ever be totally eradicated from poultry, but studies predict that a reduction of Campylobacter levels in poultry will strongly reduce the levels of foodborne illness. So we must also look at how Campylobacter can spread in food processing. Industry is already doing a lot in this area, but this is set against the economic reality and consumers’ often conflicting demands for cheap, ethical and minimally-processed meat. A number of procedures could effectively reduce the problems, such as irradiation and chemical treatments, but consumer acceptance of these is low. Even freezing, which would dramatically reduce Campylobacter infections, goes against consumer preference for fresh meat.

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