EFSA’s BIOHAZ Panel has published 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. The experts also evaluated how reduction targets for Campylobacter in chickens in the European Union may lead to a fall in the number of human cases of campylobacteriosis associated with the consumption of chicken meat.
EFSA’s opinion will help risk managers in setting measures to reduce campylobacteriosis, the most reported food-borne disease in Europe.
Campylobacteriosis accounted for 198,252 human cases notified in 2009 in the EU. However, this disease goes largely unreported and the effective number of cases is believed to be around nine million each year. The cost of campylobacteriosis to public health systems and to lost productivity is estimated to be around 2.4 billion euros each year across the EU.
Chickens are an important source of campylobacteriosis in humans. Chicken meat, in particular, accounts for 20-30% of total human cases. In the opinion, the BIOHAZ Panel experts evaluated the impact of measures that could help reduce the presence of Campylobacter in chickens before and after slaughter.
EFSA’s experts say that measures before slaughter could reduce the risk by up to 50%, although this figure is expected to vary considerably between Member States. Such measures focus mostly on preventing the bacteria from entering the housing in which the chickens are kept and on reducing the number of Campylobacter in the intestines of chickens sent to slaughter. The experts also listed a series of additional options which were found to be effective when implemented in conjunction with these measures. These options include: using fly screens, reducing the age at which chickens are sent to slaughter and discontinuing thinning practices (as humans entering chicken housing may carry bacteria from outside).
Possible other measures for risk reduction in the meat production chain include for instance: 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 2 to 3 weeks, which would reduce the risk by more than 90%. Freezing carcasses for short periods of time (2-3 days) or treating chicken carcasses with hot water (at 80 °C for 20 seconds) or with chemicals, such as lactic acid, was estimated to reduce the risk by between 50 and 90%.
The opinion also gives an indication of how setting reduction targets for Campylobacter in chickens in the EU would reduce the risk of contamination for humans. For instance, if no more than 25% 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% of chicken flocks, the risk for humans would drop by 90%.
In addition, 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%.
The experts specify that control options should be selected on the basis of their efficacy in achieving the different targets and/or microbiological criteria that could be set.
A series of recommendations is also listed in the opinion. These include: the need for further studies to verify the effectiveness of control measures under field conditions; studies to investigate specific measures for chickens reared outdoors; and research to assess the overall effect of combining various measures at different stages of the production chain (from rearing to consumption).
Campylobacter is a bacterium commonly found in the intestines of chickens and other food-producing animals without causing them to fall ill; in foodstuffs, it is mostly found in raw poultry meat. The symptoms of campylobacteriosis, the disease Campylobacter causes in humans, include diarrhoea and fever.
The risk for human health arises from consumption of under cooked meat or cross-contamination between foods. Safe handling of raw meat, thorough cooking and good kitchen hygiene can prevent or reduce the risk posed by contaminated chicken meat.
To ensure the safety of food, consumers also have their own role to play. It is recommended that good hygiene practices in the preparation of meals are followed and foods cooked thoroughly.
- “Five Keys to Safer Food” (World Health Organization)
EFSA’s work on Zoonoses
EFSA provides scientific support and advice to risk managers by: collecting and analysing data on zoonotic bacteria in animal populations and in food and feed; assessing the risks for the food chain; and making recommendations on their prevention and reduction.
EFSA’s Task Force on Zoonoses Data Collection monitors and analyses the situation on zoonoses, zoonotic agents, antimicrobial resistance, microbiological contaminants and food-borne outbreaks across Europe. The Task Force consists of a pan-European network of national representatives of Member States, other reporting countries, as well as World Health Organisation (WHO) and World organisation for animal health (OIE). The work of the Task Force provides valuable information on which risk assessors, like EFSA’s BIOHAZ Panel can base their work.
In cooperation with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) the Zoonoses Data Collection Unit produces the Annual Community Summary Report on zoonotic infections shared in nature between animals and humans and disease outbreaks caused by consuming contaminated food. These reports illustrate the evolving situation in the EU and identify the pathogens that cause the most common zoonotic infections in humans.
EFSA’s BIOHAZ Panel provides scientific advice on biological hazards in relation to food safety and food-borne diseases. This advice covers food-borne zoonoses (animal diseases transmissible to humans), Transmissible spongiform Encephalopathies (BSE/TSEs), food microbiology, food hygiene and associated waste management issues. The Panel’s risk assessment work helps to provide a sound foundation for European policies and legislation and supports risk managers in taking effective and timely decisions.
- The EU integrated approach to food safety (DG Health & Consumers)
 See the “European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) annual report on zoonoses and food-borne outbreaks in the European Union for 2009”
 In its “Scientific Opinion on Quantification of the risk posed by broiler meat to human campylobacteriosis in the EU” of 2010 EFSA’s BIOHAZ Panel concluded that the handling, preparation and consumption of broiler meat may directly account for 20 to 30% of human cases of campylobacteriosis in the EU.