Campylobacter (Camp-I-Low-Back-Ter) are particularly nasty bacteria that can cause diarrhoea and acute abdominal pain, as well as potential long term side effects from reactive arthritis to Guillain Barré syndrome, where sufferers experience varying degrees of paralysis.
Campylobacter can also kill – there are up to 85 deaths per year from this organism, and in 2012 there were 72,000 reported cases in the UK. Of course many cases are not reported as people don’t always go to the doctor, and a recent report suggested that for every case of food poisoning that the GP sees, there are 147 extra cases in the community.
Campylobacter doesn’t grow in food; it grows in the body and is highly infectious. Only 500 bacteria are needed to cause symptoms – this was found out by a scientist swallowing 500 organisms that he had put into a glass of milk!
The most common carriers of Campylobacter are chickens. In a survey carried out by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), 65% of retail chickens were found to be carrying the organism and the FSA estimates that 60-80% of cases can be blamed on chicken. Recent outbreaks have been traced back to chicken liver parfait served in restaurants.
Where is Campylobacter contracted?
With an incubation period of 3-5 days it is difficult to identify what has caused one off cases, but we certainly can’t always blame our local restaurant. In fact we should more often blame ourselves!
Andrew Wadge, Chief Scientist at the FSA points out that there is a bit of a taboo in thinking that we might be at fault.
“People don’t like to admit that the germs might have come from their own home but it’s a common myth to think that food poisoning only comes from a dodgy takeaway.”
Keeping Campylobacter under control
The main causes of illness are cross-contamination, where the bugs are moved from one place to another, and not cooking to the right temperature. Both of these are very easy to avoid with some simple hygiene in the kitchen.
But with some sources telling you to use anti-bacterial products and others telling you that hot soapy water will do the trick, who are you to believe?
Well, common sense will tell you that if water is hot enough to kill bacteria, it’s too hot for you to put your hand into, so hot soapy water just won’t do the trick. Then it won’t just be on your surfaces, but on your cloth, in your sink and all over the washing up that you think is actually clean!
So make sure that you always use an anti-bacterial spray on any surface that might have come into contact with raw poultry and meat. Plastic chopping boards and knives can be put into the dishwasher as long as the cycle reaches temperatures of 65° C for at least 30 minutes. You don’t need to go crazy with products, just spray the surface, leave for a few moments then wipe with a paper towel or rinse under the tap. I wouldn’t put my family at risk by failing to do this – and I can assure you, I don’t get through bucket loads of product!
The other very simple control is cooking. Advice such as “cook till piping hot”, “till the juices run clear”, “till there is no pinkness” is all over the place. However, it is well known that colour is not an indication of “doneness”. The only real test is actual temperature in the thickest part of the meat. That’s what we tell caterers to do – so why not advise people cooking in the home to do the same? The simple message, is don’t guess, cook to 75 °C in the centre and you will have killed Campylobacter. A simple probe thermometer can help with this for as little as £15. Obviously the probe needs disinfecting – boiling water or anti-bacterial spray can be used.
Finally it is essential that after handling raw chicken everyone washes their hands thoroughly using soap, warm water and dries their hands on a paper towel, preferably.
Some top tips to prevent Campylobacter laying you up for 2 weeks:
• Cook chicken to 75 °C in the core use a probe thermometer
• Minimise the mess – get all the utensils and ingredients out before you start to prepare chicken – it reduces the spread from your hands to handles etc
• Clean up immediately after handling chicken and blitz any areas that may have Campylobacter on them using a good quality anti-bacterial spray – leave on for a few minutes and wipe away with paper towels. Anti-bacterial wipes are good as well. Spray the sink and taps to make sure they are not contaminated.
• Wash your hands thoroughly using soap and warm water, get in between the fingers and thumbs and soap up round your nails. Dry with a paper towel
• If you enjoy a glass of wine when you are cooking, don’t get Campylobacter all over the rim – wait till you have finished preparing the raw chicken and have cleaned up!
• If you use a cloth, then you need to wash it at over 60 °C or boil it up in a saucepan just like my granny used to do – it’s fun to see the colour of the water!