It is a wonder that Campylobacter doesn’t get more attention as a public health scourge. It has long ruled the international kingdom of diarrhea as the most prevalent foodborne disease worldwide–the United States too–yet the average person walking down the street has probably never heard of it. Nonetheless, Campylobacter continues to cause more illnesses than any of its bacterial brethren.
Campylobacter, like E. coli, is a family of bacteria; and there are multiple strains of it that can make you sick. Campylobacter jejuni is the most common. The illnesses that Campylobacter infections cause are called Campylobacteriosis. The CDC receives about 10,000 reports a year, but it is estimated that between two and four million people are infected annually. The effects of Campylobacteriosis, like pretty much any foodborne pathogen, can run the gamut from several days of "flu-like" symptoms to, in extreme cases, death. CDC monitoring shows that approximately 124 people die every year from Campylobacteriosis. Moreover, recent studies have shown that infection by certain bacteria, including Campylobacter, significantly increases a victim’s risk of developing ongoing, or permanent gastrointestinal problems, including post-infectious Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or even Irritable Bowel Disease (including Crohns). Finally, It is conservatively estimated that Campylobacteriosis illnesses cost $1 billion annually for medical care, lost wages, and other productivity losses.
Food is, of course, the most common vehicle for the spread of Campylobacter, and chicken is the most common food implicated. But an important fact to understand is that, even in chickens, Campylobacter is not a muscle-born bug–i.e. the bacteria lives in the intestines of chicken. Thus, contamination of chicken meat results, ultimately, from contact with chicken feces.
Soberingly, a study done in 1998 identified Campylobacter in 63% of more than 1000 chickens obtained in grocery stores, and other studies have documented Campylobacter contamination on up to 88 percent of chicken carcasses. Lots of other studies have been done, but even studies showing relatively "low" levels of contamination of raw chicken were in the 30%, 40%, or 50% range. Thus, good food-handling practices are critical when handling raw chicken.
But at this level of contamination, which really should come as no shock when you consider the conditions in which chickens are raised and slaughtered, its not realistic to believe that good food-handling practices alone are sufficient to prevent infections and outbreaks from happening on a broad basis. It takes only 500 Campylobacter bacteria to cause illness in a human being, and millions of the bacteria fit on the head of a pin. A single basically unnoticeable drop of chicken juice on a child’s plate, or in an old folks’ home, might kill somebody. More, or better, controls in food processing are obviously needed.