Foodborne illness by Campylobacter: little known, but very common.

Dr Arnoud van Vliet leads the Campylobacter research group at the Institute of Food Research. He recently spoke to the  BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Face the Facts’ about Campylobacter and efforts to understand and control it. 

Here he blogs about Campylobacter, and will be happy to answer any questions posted in the comments below.

When people are asked about possible causes of food poisoning, they will often respond with “you mean Salmonella or E. coli?”. Many years back Edwina Currie lost her ministerial position after admitting that British eggs could be contaminated with Salmonella, and the E. coli outbreak in Germany in 2011 has cemented the reputation of E. coli through its deadly effect and reverberations on the sales of Spanish cucumbers, even though these were innocent.

Campylobacter jejuni

However, while these two bacteria are well known, when it comes to sheer numbers, they pale in significance when compared to Campylobacter, a bacterium which is well known in the medical and scientific world and to food producers and governments, but virtually unknown to the general public. While Campylobacter infection is much less likely to result in life-threatening illness or death, it remains a very serious public health and economic problem.

Campylobacter is found in high concentrations in the intestine of many animals and birds associated with agriculture, especially poultry. Many of these birds will not develop disease or show any symptoms, and hence cannot be easily identified or separated. During slaughter, the meat can get contaminated and if the meat is undercooked, the bacteria can survive and cause severe diarrhoea. Alternatively, improper handling of meat can lead to cross-contamination of other food stuff in the kitchen and result in infection and subsequent disease. While the diarrhoea is severe and may require treatment with antibiotics, it is usually also self-limiting, and does not last for more than 1-2 weeks.

It is estimated that each year there are about 371,000 cases of Campylobacter infection in the UK alone, compared to approximately fifteen thousand cases of Salmonella infection, and in Europe it has been estimated that there are between two and twenty million cases per year. This can explain the choice of the UK Food Standards Agency to highlight the reduction of Campylobacter infections as one of its two main targets, and scientists, regulators and industry are jointly working to support this aim.

Dr Arnoud van Vliet

The Institute of Food Research has a research team dedicated to studying Campylobacter, with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as part of the Gut Health and Food Safety Strategic Research Programme. This team, led by Dr. Arnoud van Vliet, investigate what makes Campylobacter so successful in causing diarrhoeal disease. They look at different stages in the lifestyle of Campylobacter, which goes from the intestines in poultry to the surface of foods, and then is ingested and can cause disease. Check the Gut Health and Food Safety blog for examples of current projects.

There is however no magic bullet, but funding agencies, government, regulators, scientists, industry, producers and retailers are working together to come up with procedures and activities aimed at reducing the Campylobacter problem.

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