Roughly 90% of retail poultry in the USA harbors Campylobacter.

Some history

Campylobacter fetus – originally known as Vibrio fetus – was first associated with diarrheal illness in 1957. By the mid- to late-1980s, Campylobacter was recognized as one of the most common causes of diarrhea worldwide. The species that is most commonly linked to human illness is Campylobacter jejuni.

What is Campylobacter, and where is its natural habitat?

Campylobacter is a heat-loving bacterium, which grows best at 108ºF (or 42ºC), several degrees warmer than the temperature preferred by other pathogens such as E. coli, Shigella or Salmonella. It does not grow at cooler temperatures (below 86ºF), but can survive at refrigerator temperatures. The microbe typically looks like a rod that has been bent into a curve or twisted to form a spiral. Campylobacter lives in the intestinal tracts of birds and mammals around the world.

How is Campylobacter transmitted? What is the incubation period of the infection?

Campylobacter is most commonly transmitted when someone eats undercooked or contaminated poultry, drinks unpasteurized milk or contaminated water, or by hand-to-mouth contact with household pets (including backyard poultry) that carry the bacteria. The typical incubation period is 2 to 5 days.

What is campylobacteriosis? How long does it take to develop?

Campylobacter produces a form of gastroenteritis, much like Salmonella. The length of time required for symptoms to appear is usually two to five days, but will depend on the size of the infective dose and the susceptibility of the victim. It takes as few as 800 to as many as one million Campylobacter organisms to infect 10-50% of individuals.

What are the symptoms of Campylobacter infections?

Symptoms include diarrhea (sometimes bloody). fever and abdominal cramps. In most cases, the symptoms last from 2 to 10 days.

What is the prognosis of a Campylobacter infection?

Most Campylobacter infections are self-limiting, and symptoms disappear in 2 to 10 days. In less than 1% of cases, a patient can develop bacteremia (bloodstream infection). Occasionally (less than 1 case in every 1,000), individuals infected with Campylobacter develop Guillain-Barré syndrome – an autoimmune disease that affects the peripheral nervous system. Approximately 10% of Guillain-Barré cases are fatal.

What foods carry Campylobacter?

Most raw poultry purchased by consumers in the USA and Canada is contaminated with Campylobacter. Incidence rates are somewhat lower in many European countries, but still significantly higher than the incidence of Salmonella contamination. Raw (unpasteurized) milk also can a vehicle for Campylobacter, and consumption of unpasteurized dairy products is linked to small outbreaks of Campylobacter gastroenteritis a few times every year.

How can people protect themselves from Campylobacter infections?

Campylobacter is killed during pasteurization of milk and by normal cooking procedures. Ways to minimize the risk of contracting Campylobacter infections include:

  • Always cook poultry thoroughly, to an internal temperature of 165ºF (74ºC)
  • Take care to avoid contact between raw poultry juices and foods that are ready-to-eat, including cooked meats, side dishes, salads and desserts
  • Wash and sanitize hands, utensils and work surfaces after working with raw poultry
  • Avoid consuming raw milk and dairy products made using unpasteurized milk
  • Avoid drinking untreated water
  • Always wash hands after touching a pet or barnyard animal
  • Do not allow toddlers and young children to play with pets or barnyard animals (such as baby chicks or ducklings) unsupervised.

For more information on Campylobacter and other food-borne pathogens, visit the CDC website or read Food Safety: Old Habits, New Perspectives.