Writing in recently published Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) report, ‘Microbiological Criteria as a Decision Tool for Controlling Campylobacter in the Broiler Meat Chain’, A.N Swart, M-J.J Mangen and A.H Havelaar note that campylobacter “causes a substantial burden of disease in The Netherlands”.
The bacteria affects humans by cross-contaminating other raw food, such as salads, but under-cooked meat can also lead to the illness, and the RIVM authors said that 8490 cases of campylobacteriosis were reported in Holland in 2011, while it claimed 34 lives in that year alone.
With the Dutch government currently considering whether to establish a microbiological criterion for broiler meat, Swart el al. said that, due to bacterial weakness post-processing, a zero-tolerance approach to Campylobacter on fresh chicken meat was not necessary to achieve a high degree of consumer protection.
Saving lives by cutting Campylobacter
But Swart et al. said their report showed that incidences of Campylobacter-related diseases could be lowered if risk management strategies were implemented that reduced levels of the bacteria in chicken during industrial processing, preventing highly contaminated products reaching the consumer.
And despite the potential cost to industry of, for instance, heat-treating carcasses to reduce risk, the RIVM said that this was "considerably lower than the averted costs of illness", which it said stood at around €9m per year.
The report authors analysed data provided by 16 Dutch slaughterhouses that measured levels of Campylobacter on the skin of broiler carcasses after chilling and on filets on a weekly basis during 2009-2010.
Based on this data, the risk for consumers of campylobacteriosis preparation and consumption of boiler chicken meat was calculated on a per plant, per year using a published risk assessment model.
Balancing industry cost against health cost
Overall successful implementation of their baseline microbiological criterion (1000 cfu or colony-forming units of Campylobacter as a critical limit) would have reduced consumer risk by 63% in 2009 and 72% in 2010, the report authors write, where 32% and 37% of batches produced in those years would not have met that criterion.
"Choosing other critical limits in the process hygeine criterion [for Campylobacter on broiler meat, a step the Dutch government is considering implementing] has important consequences," the authors write.
"A more stringent critical limit of 100 cfu/g would reduce consumer risks by 98%, but 55% of all batches would not comply,” they add.
Conversely, Swart et al. said that a “more tolerant” critical limit of 10000 cfu/g would reduce consumer risks by 21%, with 6% of batches not complying.
"Economic analysis suggests that implementing [using a critical limit of 1000 cfu] is highly effective from a societal point of view," the authors write.