Retail chicken meat often contains Campylobacter but the level of contamination is generally low, according to a recent research report.

Researchers collected 1,490 chicken, beef, lamb, and pork samples from Australian supermarkets and butchers from October 2016 to October 2018.

The work, published in the Journal of Food Protection in December, covered Campylobacter species in fresh and frozen meat and offal products from retail outlets in New South Wales (NSW), Queensland, and Victoria.

“By identifying the types of meat and offal products types that pose the greatest risk of Campylobacter infection to consumers, targeted control strategies can be developed,” said researchers.

Variation by meat type
Most chicken meat and chicken offal samples were positive for Campylobacter spp., whereas percentages of Campylobacter-positive samples were lower in lamb, pork, and beef offal.

Campylobacter spp. were detected in 90 percent of chicken meat and 73 percent of chicken offal products such as giblet and liver, with a lower prevalence in lamb at 38 percent, pork at 31 percent, and beef at 14 percent offal like kidney and liver.

A total of 98 percent of chicken meat samples had less than 10,000 colony forming units per gram (CFU/g) of Campylobacter per carcass, with 10 percent showing below 21 CFU per carcass. Higher levels of contamination were seen on whole bird samples, where 11 percent of them positive for Campylobacter spp. had more than 10,000 CFU per carcass detected.

Campylobacter coli was most frequently recovered in chicken meat collected in NSW and Victoria and in chicken offal in NSW, Queensland, and Victoria. In beef, lamb, and pork offal, Campylobacter jejuni was generally the most common species, except for pork offal from NSW, where Campylobacter coli was more prevalent.

Campylobacter prevalence was higher in fresh lamb and pork offal than in frozen offal. For chicken, beef, and pork offal, the prevalence of Campylobacter spp. was significantly higher on delicatessen products compared with prepackaged items.

Frequent detection at low levels
In 2018, 32,086 Campylobacter cases were reported in Australia. The CampySource project aims to apply genomics, epidemiology, and source attribution modeling to identify locally relevant risk factors and sources to reduce illness from this pathogen in the country.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) guidelines for poultry meat set a microbiological target for Campylobacter at the end of processing at below 10,000 CFU per whole chicken carcass to verify suitable control. The Campylobacter dose required to cause illness has been reported at between 360 and 800 CFU.

“Our findings suggest that even though raw chicken meat commonly harbors Campylobacter spp. at retail, the level of contamination in most products is likely below the national guideline used to reduce risk of campylobacteriosis associated with retail chicken meat,” said researchers.

Chicken was either conventionally farmed or free range. Conventionally farmed fresh prepacked chicken had a lower prevalence of Campylobacter compared with fresh prepacked chicken product farmed by free range.

In total, 785 samples of chicken (meat and offal) were tested for Campylobacter spp., along with 216 of beef, 208 of lamb, and 281 of pork offal.

Consumer role
Prevalence of Campylobacter on chicken meat was 84 percent in NSW, 90 percent in Queensland, and 96 percent in Victoria. It was slightly lower on chicken offal with 83 percent in NSW, 65 percent in Queensland, and 88 percent in Victoria.

Whole chicken carcasses had a lower prevalence of Campylobacter than most meat cuts across the three areas, whereas thighs and wings had the highest prevalence.

The proportion of Campylobacter-positive samples was low for beef offal in Queensland at 10 percent and NSW at 21 percent, whereas pork offal in Queensland and NSW was 13 and 48 percent and lamb offal in Queensland and NSW was 30 and 54 percent, respectively

Some chicken had levels of Campylobacter above the FSANZ microbiological target of less than 10,000 CFU per carcass for raw chicken meat before distribution.

“Reducing bacterial load below this target will limit the risk of campylobacteriosis to consumers. However, consumers should continue to practice good food safety, including adequately cooking meat products and avoiding cross-contamination of raw meat with fresh ready-to-eat foods,” said researchers.

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