John Craven: Poultry disease slips under radar.

Little-reported campylobacter bacteria costs economy £600m a year. 

Gloucestershire floods


Every year around half a million of us in the UK are struck down with a nasty type of food poisoning that, ironically, is perfectly harmless to the creature most likely to have passed it to us, the chicken. Because we eat so much chicken (23 kilos each a year, equivalent to the airline baggage allowance) this bug, campylobacter, is booming.

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Anyone who has been unlucky enough to suffer will tell you how awful it is – fever, diarrhoea and stomach cramps that usually last a week or so. It is thought to be responsible for about 100 deaths annually.

Although it costs the economy £600m a year in medical bills and time, it is hardly big news, maybe because campylobacter is too long for a tabloid headline. Also, it tends to hit people one at a time rather than causing mass outbreaks.

Back in 1988, the poultry trade reeled from the impact when Edwina Currie, then a junior health minister, claimed most of this country’s egg production was infected with a similar bug, salmonella. Sales plunged overnight and didn’t fully recover for many years. But there has been no such outcry over campylobacter even though, according to poultry industry figures, it infects four-fifths of our chicken flocks.

Mystery surrounds how the bug gets into the poultry sheds, where huge numbers of chickens are intensively reared during their six-week-long lives. That is being investigated, along with the possibility of a vaccine, as part of research being carried out jointly by the industry, the Food Standards Agency and veterinary experts. The target is to cut the infection level by half in the next few years.

Campylobacter was unknown 40 years ago but is now the most common form of food poisoning in the UK – and just one of the many livestock health issues which have cost British taxpayers vast amounts of money. I’ve reported most of them on Countryfile, so here is an update on the more significant ones.

  • BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease) was first spotted in 1986 and led to a 10-year worldwide ban on British beef. Two million cattle were tested between November 2005 and December 2010 and only 10 cases were found. Last year there were none. There is continuing concern over the human version vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) caught by eating infected meat, which can lie dormant for decades; 121 people have died in the UK from vCJD with another 54 deaths probable.
  • Salmonella led to strict hygiene standards being introduced and a vaccine. The Lion Stamp on eggs was reintroduced to guarantee safety.
  • Foot and mouth broke out in 2001 and cost up to £9bn. Around six million sheep and cattle were slaughtered and the sight of funeral pyres distressed the nation. New regulations have since been brought in for quicker, better control of any future outbreak.
  • Avian flu and bluetongue have yet to materialise as real threats, but the latest concern is the Schmallenberg virus, which causes miscarriages and stillbirths in ruminants. I will report more on this later in the year.
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As for campylobacter, it does have a saving grace – it is easily killed by freezing or cooking meat thoroughly. But forget about washing a chicken before cooking – that just spreads the bug around the kitchen.