EFSA addresses cutting Campylobacter in chickens

by Bryan Salvage
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PARMA, Italy – A scientific opinion assessing the public-health impact of control measures which could be used to reduce the occurrence of Campylobacter in chickens and chicken meat has been published by the European Food Safety Authority’s BIOHAZ panel. Campylobacteriosis is the most reported food-borne disease in Europe.

In 2009 in the EU, Campylobacteriosis accounted for 198,252 human cases. This disease, however, goes largely unreported and the effective number of cases is believed to be around nine million annually. The cost of Campylobacteriosis to public health systems and to lost productivity is estimated to be around 2.4 billion euros (US$3.5 billion) each year throughout the EU.

Chicken is a significant campylobacteriosis source in humans. Chicken meat accounts for 20 percent to 30 percent of total human cases. BIOHAZ Panel experts evaluated the impact of measures that could help reduce the presence of Campylobacter in chickens before and after slaughter.

Measures before slaughter could reduce the risk by up to 50 percent, although this figure is expected to vary considerably between member states, EFSA’s experts said. Such measures focus primarily on preventing the bacteria from entering the housing where the chickens are kept and on reducing the number of Campylobacter in the intestines of chickens sent to slaughter.

A series of additional options, which were found to be effective when implemented in conjunction with these measures, were also listed. These options include: using fly screens, reducing the age at which chickens are sent to slaughter and discontinuing thinning practices (since humans entering chicken housing could carry bacteria from outside).

Other possible measures for risk reduction in the meat-production chain include cooking on an industrial scale or irradiating the meat, which are both likely to destroy all Campylobacter that may be present on the meat; and freezing carcasses for two to three weeks, which would reduce the risk by more than 90%. Freezing carcasses for short periods of time (two to three days) or treating chicken carcasses with hot water at 80 °C (176°F) for 20 seconds or with chemicals, such as lactic acid, were estimated to reduce the risk by between 50 percent and 90 percent.

Setting reduction targets for Campylobacter in chickens in the EU would reduce the risk of contamination for humans. If no more than 25 percent of chicken flocks in each member state were to test positive for Campylobacter, the number of human cases would be reduced by half. If this target were to be further lowered to only 5 percent of chicken flocks, the risk for humans would drop by 90 percent, the experts claimed.

Setting limits for the number of Campylobacter per gram of fresh chicken meat could reduce, depending on the value, the public health risk by up to 90 percent.

Control options should be selected on the basis of their efficacy in achieving the different targets and/or microbiological criteria that could be set, the experts concluded.
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