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Food poisoning: the bacteria lurking in your chicken

last modified May 25, 2016 09:29 AM
The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, C is for Chicken – a popular source of protein that carries a hidden hazard in the form of Campylobacter.

Poultry is an important source of protein; almost half the meat we eat in the UK is chicken.  And the popularity of chicken is rising: it’s convenient, tasty and cheap. On average we eat around 190g per person per week. Poultry, however, harbours a hidden problem. Around two-thirds of raw chicken sold by British retailers is infected with bacteria called Campylobacter.

Campylobacter is ubiquitous in the environment. All chicken flocks, large or small, factory-farmed or free range, are susceptible to infection. The bacteria have the ability to survive the production chain from farm to fork.

Adequate cooking, however, kills the bacteria and makes chicken safe to eat. Consumers are advised not to wash chicken before cooking and to follow basic hygiene rules when handling raw chicken.

If Campylobacter is ingested by humans, it can lead to diarrhoea. Four out of five cases of food poisoning in the UK can be traced to poultry; sickness from Campylobacter costs the economy an estimated £900 million each year. Recovery can take a week or more, and infection with the bacteria is also associated with serious complications – including reactive arthritis and Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

These facts are the driving force behind research being undertaken by microbiologists Dr Andrew Grant, Professor Duncan Maskell and their groups at the Department of Veterinary Medicine. “Campylobacter is the leading source of bacterial gastroenteritis, affecting half a million people and killing an estimated 100 people each year in the UK,” says Grant. “This is why it’s a major target for research efforts.” Read more..