This column originally ran in the May 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.
According to new reports released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), incidences of campylobacter, commonly contracted from poultry and raw milk, are on the rise.
On April 19, 2013, the CDC published a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) reporting on several trends relating to foodborne illness. The MMWR references research completed by FoodNet, which, according to the CDC, “conducts active, population-based surveillance for laboratory-confirmed infections caused by” various foodborne bacteria.
By tracking identified foodborne illness instances, FoodNet determined that, in addition to various other strains of foodborne bacteria and viruses, campylobacter infection was found in 14.3 people per 100,000. This figure shows a 14 percent increase over the infection rates from 2006 to 2008, despite relatively flat rates for salmonella and listeria contamination over the same period. According to the CDC, “After substantial declines in the early years of FoodNet Surveillance, the incidence of campylobacter infection has increased to its highest level since 2000.”
Campylobacter is relatively mild in its effect when compared with more commonly discussed foodborne bacteria, and like those illnesses it tends to impact young and elderly populations at a higher rate. According to FoodNet salmonella and listeria result in hospitalizations for 55 and 96 percent of those infected, respectively. Comparatively, campylobacter results in a 15 percent hospitalization rate. This, however, does not mean that the bacteria are harmless. According to a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets,” which is based on independent research as well as CDC and FDA data, campylobacter “can trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that usually requires intensive care treatment and can lead to paralysis.”
The MMWR report suggested that the elevated campylobacter contaminations “highlight the need to continue to identify and address food safety gaps that can be targeted for action by the food industry and regulatory authorities.”
The CDC report goes on to say that “in 2011, USDA-FSIS issued new campylobacter performance standards for U.S. chicken and turkey processors.” These new HACCP performance standards, as outlined by the USDA, suggest a campylobacter positive test rate of 10.4 percent for young chickens and a 0.79 percent positive test rate for young turkeys.
The CDC notes that “continued FoodNet surveillance can help to assess the public health impact of these standards and other changes.”
The EWG report highlights the rise in antibiotic-resistant campylobacter, which is a significant factor in the overall increase in contamination cases. The EWG highlights findings in an FDA report that show all campylobacter found on turkeys were “resistant to at least one antibiotic.” The report, “2011 National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring Report” (NARM), was released in February and also shows that 26 percent of chicken samples tested positive for antibiotic-resistant campylobacter.
The EWG finds these results — well above the FSIS recommendations of 10.4 percent for any (antibiotic-resistant and not) campylobacter presence — troubling. The “Superbugs” report concludes that “the FDA’s efforts to curb antibiotic abuse consist of only voluntary guidance documents — not regulations that carry the force of law. EWG takes the position that the FDA must take more aggressive steps to prevent superbugs from proliferating and livestock producers from squandering the effectiveness of vital medicines.”
Whether or not current regulations are as toothless as suggested by the EWG, increased compliance with standards outlined by regulatory bodies and a better understanding of how antibiotic resistance increased instances of foodborne illness will be vital in reversing the upward trend of campylobacter infections.