Imported chicken meat products pose a higher risk of Campylobacter infection in Estonia than domestic poultry, according to a study published recently.

Researchers found that Campylobacter prevalence and counts in fresh broiler chicken meat was significantly lower in samples of Estonian origin compared to those from Latvia and Lithuania.

In the study, 429 chicken meat samples of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian origin were collected from Estonian retailers and analyzed between September 2018 and October 2019.

Campylobacter was isolated in 141 broiler chicken meat samples. Overall three, 49, and 89 of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian origin samples were positive.

Link to human illness
Among positive samples, 62 contained Campylobacter below 100 colony forming units per gram (CFU/g) and in 28 samples the count exceeded 1,000 CFU/g. A higher prevalence of Campylobacter in fresh broiler chicken meat of Lithuanian and Latvian origin in Estonian retail was observed, according to the study published in the journal Poultry Science.

More than 1,000 CFU/g were found in one Latvian and 27 Lithuanian fresh broiler chicken meat samples. The highest count of 1,500 CFU/g in the Latvian sample was detected in February 2019.

Among positive samples from Lithuania, high counts ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 CFU/g occurred throughout the year from October 2018 to August 2019.

In Estonia, 348 confirmed cases of campylobacteriosis were registered in 2019. This level is lower than the average in the European Union.

Campylobacter isolates related to human infections in Estonia were also obtained.

Campylobacter jejuni genotypes found in both broiler chicken meat and human samples indicates that imported fresh chicken meat is likely the cause of campylobacteriosis in Estonia. Only isolates from Lithuanian chicken meat products overlapped with those from human patients in Estonia, said researchers.

Estonian approach
A comparison with previous studies revealed a decrease of Campylobacter prevalence in fresh chicken meat samples of Estonian origin from 15.8 in 2000 to 2002 to 1.8 in this study. Since 2012, the prevalence of Latvian and Lithuanian Campylobacter in chicken meat has increased, from 25.8 to 36.8 percent and from 10.6 to 66.9 percent, respectively, but the number of samples taken varied.

Researchers said a possible explanation for the Estonian results is that strict biosecurity and self-control measures at farm, slaughterhouse and meat industry levels are applied, plus risk assessment based control measures are implemented at all stages of production.

The three positive samples among Estonian products were found in July. In Estonia, the only broiler chicken slaughterhouse and all related farms belong to one international meat company, which is not the case in Latvia and Lithuania.

Scientists said further research is needed to study other possible sources of Campylobacter infections in Estonia.

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