There are estimated to be 280,000 cases of Campylobacter every year and on average 110 deaths. The Food Standards Agency reckons that this means that around one third of us in the UK will suffer from the disease at some point in our lives. Four out of five cases are associated with chicken.
In a study carried out of raw chickens this year, the following conclusions were drawn by the Food Standards Agency:
- 19% of chickens tested positive for campylobacter within the highest band of contamination
- 73% of chickens tested positive for the presence of campylobacter
- 0.1% (five samples) of packaging tested positive at the highest band of contamination (more than 1000 organisms per pack)
- 7% of packaging tested positive for the presence of Campylobacter
But what could this mean in real terms?
How many chickens are consumed in the UK each year?
- According to The British Poultry Council in 2013, 870 million British chickens were hatched, bred and slaughtered plus we imported another 400 million chickens: 870 + 400 million = 1,270 million chickens in the UK. Working on the basis of these figures:
- If 73% of chickens are contaminated, then 927 million chickens could be contaminated with Campylobacter.
- If 7% of packs are contaminated, then 7% of 1,270 million packs could mean 88.9 million packs could be contaminated.
- At the “highly contaminated” range of packaging then 0.1% of 1,270 million packs could mean 1.27 million packs could be contaminated on the outside of the packaging with enough Campylobacter to make someone ill (the infectious dose is actually 500 bacteria or fewer).
Of course all these figures are approximations, and much of this chicken will be processed in factories or prepared in catering outlets (with risks attached as well); if you account for this by estimating that 50% of chickens may reach households, the figures become:
- 635 million chickens handled in the home could be contaminated with Campylobacter
- 44.5 million packs of chicken brought home could be contaminated
- 635,000 “highly contaminated” packs could be brought home
After my arbitrary adjustment (and even if we estimated that only 25% of chickens reached households) this means that could many occasions when people may be preparing contaminated raw chicken, or handling contaminated packaging, so perhaps it is no surprise that there are 280,000 cases of Campylobacter estimated each year. Whilst everyone in the food chain is working very hard to tackle this problem from the bottom to the top, currently the cases of illness are not reducing, so buyer beware! I believe messages need to be very clear about what we can do to protect ourselves – and actually much of this is not too difficult, expensive or time-consuming.
- Remember your hands may be dirty from touching raw chicken and meat, raw root vegetables, or just a surface touched by someone else with contaminated hands.
- Avoid eating whilst shopping, or feeding children on the go.
- If you do have to grab a snack, wash your hands before eating or feeding children or use an anti-bacterial gel if you can’t get to a basin.
- Pack your bag carefully – separate raw and ready to eat foods in different bags.
- Wash your hands after unloading the shopping.
- As contamination from Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli could survive for days on surfaces you may want to keep a bag just for just raw meat now we have to pay 5p for a plastic bag.
- I can’t really see anyone will a) be bothered to or b) know how to disinfect a bag.
- Stack the fridge so raw meat and poultry is away from and preferably on a lower shelf to ready-to-eat foods such as cooked chicken and ham.
- Don’t wash chicken or raw meat – this spreads bacteria all over the sink and taps, and any items on the draining board.
- When preparing raw meat and poultry remember that these items may be contaminated, so get ready for action first – get out all the utensils you need ready so you don’t have to touch drawer handles with dirty hands.
- I actually try not to touch raw meat or poultry – I use a fork to get it out of the pack and straight in the pan or hold it with a fork on the chopping board whilst I cut it up – call me paranoid, but I’d rather save getting my hands really dirty.
- After preparation, you need to kill the bacteria one way or another. With the chicken itself, that’s easy – cook it thoroughly (if you want to be sure, use a probe thermometer to check the temperature is 75° C in the middle.
- For surfaces and utensils, this war on the bugs could be by heat (i.e. hot setting on the dishwasher) or by using a disinfectant chemical. The message of “clean thoroughly” is not very clear so what should you do?
- You don’t need to be trigger happy! Target the areas that are contaminated with an anti-bacterial cleanser.
- Just for these occasions, I would say don’t use a cloth as you could pick up the bacteria on the cloth and spread them around – use an anti-bacterial cleanser on the surfaces, taps and any touch points; allow the chemical to stay on the surface for a minute or two (read instructions) and then wipe with a paper towel – in the bin – job done. Anti-bacterial wipes can also be effective but a bit more expensive.
- Then – wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water (I do it twice if my hands have touched meat or poultry a lot) and make sure you clean the nails (especially if you are a nail biter). This is NOT a quick flick under the cold tap! By the way it is the rubbing action and the rinsing that gets the bacteria off your hands.
- I use a paper towel to dry my hands.
- Finally, if you recycle the chicken pack, I wouldn’t wash it out in the kitchen sink, or you will have the same problem as if you washed chicken – bacteria flying everywhere.
Campylobacter Economics: cost-benefit analysis
- A number of squirts of anti-bacterial cleanser in the right place at the right time, a few squares of paper towel, some hand soap and a little time – probably about 10p.
- Weeks of illness, lots of loo paper, many toilet flushes, visits to the doctor, medication, days off work or school or both, complications (arthritis, paralysis), hospital admission, visits of relations to hospital (and parking fees) and the potential ultimate price – death
We are becoming more and more conscious of over-use of chemicals, paper etc, and the cost it has on the environment; however, illness also has its costs on the environment – as seen in the list above all the things that are costs of illness in terms of money are also costs to the environment.
Personally, I think the maths stack up to put in some simple preventive measures. Targeted hygienic cleaning is not about creating a sterile home environment – rather it is about making sure that you protect yourself and your family from dangerous bugs at the right time in the right way. Like much of the population, I enjoy eating chicken, but safely!