Campylobacter are gram-negative, non-spore-forming spiral-shaped bacteria. They grow under microaerobic conditions (reduced oxygen content), are sensitive to acidic and basic pH values, are safely killed by pasteurisation. The most common species are C. jejuni, which causes about 90 % of human cases of illness (campylobacteriosis), and C. coli.
Campylobacter infections are widespread worldwide and occur more frequently during the warm season. Alongside salmonellae, they are the most important pathogens of bacterial intestinal diseases in humans. As in previous years, campylobacteriosis was the most frequently reported foodborne bacterial infectious disease in Austria in 2021.
Campylobacteriosis in humans is mainly considered to be a food-borne infection. The main sources of infection are primarily inadequately heated poultry meat, unheated food contaminated with it (e.g. after using the same cutting board without thorough cleaning after cutting up the poultry) and raw milk. Direct transmission from person to person (faecal-oral) is rare.
Illness can be manifested by high fever, watery to bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache and fatigue; the disease can also be asymptomatic, i.e. without any recognizable signs of illness. The disease lasts on average a few days to a week, occasionally longer. Consequences can include joint diseases (e.g. reactive arthritis) and Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), in which paralysis of the peripheral nerves occurs.
Hygiene in food preparation to avoid cross-contamination between raw meat and other foods. Even very small amounts of the pathogen (approx. 500 germs) can cause an infection in humans. For comparison: more than 10,000 germs (colony-forming units) can be found on one gram of poultry skin.
You can find more information on kitchen hygiene here.
The seasonal occurrence of campylobacteriosis showed a similar pattern in the past years: the fewest cases of illness between November and April, most cases from June to September. The isolation rates of thermotolerant Campylobacter from slaughtered broiler flocks provide a roughly similar picture, with the highest values in the summer months, which subsequently suggest higher contamination rates of fresh retail chicken meat in summer and thus point to this food as the most important pathogen vehicle for Campylobacter.
Foodborne disease outbreaks
In 2022, eight foodborne disease outbreaks (LMbKA) caused by Campylobacter were reported to the Epidemiological Reporting System (EMS) in Austria (as of Feb.23, 2023), with 17 persons affected, no deaths. The number of outbreaks caused by Campylobacter has decreased significantly in recent years. A total of 325 outbreaks have been reported into the EMS in the past 10 years, 61 in 2012, with the fewest in 2021.
In 2022, approximately 600 food samples (official examinations according to sample plan) were examined for Campylobacter, mainly poultry meat and poultry meat preparations (approximately 400 samples), ready-to-eat foods (approximately 20 samples), and milk and milk products (approximately 90 samples). Campylobacter was detected in 308 samples, 284 times in fresh chicken meat (n=79). Campylobacter was detected 54 times in fresh turkey meat (354 samples tested). The positivity rate for fresh chicken meat, depending on the season, is thus about 70%, for fresh turkey meat about 30%, which corresponds to the proportion of previous years.
Campylobacter were not detectable in raw milk and other dishes. Beef and pork are rarely tested because Campylobacter generally does not survive due to production conditions (different slaughter process; this meat is matured, the meat surface dries out) and therefore these foods have a minor role as a source of infection for humans.
The process hygiene criterion "Campylobacter" (regulated in Commission Regulation (EU) 2017/1495 (within the framework of Regulation (EU) 2073/2005, microbiological criteria) has been in force in Austria since 1.1.2018. In Austrian broiler slaughterhouses, a total of 1,044 samples were taken for self-monitoring purposes. Of these, Campylobacter ≥1,000 CFU/g was detected in 139 samples.
Since 2004, annual monitoring programs have been carried out in Austria by the federal government, together with commissioned veterinarians and AGES, in accordance with the Monitoring Programs Regulation with regard to selected pathogens in cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. In 2014, a new EU implementing decision came into force that requires broiler and turkey flocks to be tested every 2 years for the presence of thermotolerant Campylobacter and the isolated C. jejuni to be tested for their susceptibility to antibiotics. In 2015, 2017, and 2019, poultry did not need to be tested for Campylobacter; in 2018, the prevalence of thermotolerant Campylobacter was 55.5% in broiler flocks and 54.9% in turkey flocks. In both broiler and turkey flocks, the prevalence decreased to below 50% in 2020.
Diagnostics: The pathogen is usually detected by culturing stool. At the national reference centre for Campylobacter we perform the following tests:
- Species/genus differentiation of Campylobacter and related genera (biochemical, MALDI-TOF, PCR, sequencing).
- Antibiotic resistance testing: Determination of the resistance of isolates from humans, animals, food and the environment to clinically relevant or epidemiologically important antibiotics on the basis of the minimum inhibitory concentration.
- Performance of tasks in the framework of the Zoonoses Monitoring Directive 2003/99/EC
- Molecular biological fine typing (by means of PFGE, MLST) of isolates in the context of laboratory-based infection epidemiological clarification of infection sources and routes
- Qualitative and quantitative detection of Campylobacter in foodstuffs
We also maintain a strain collection (human, veterinary, feed and food isolates), perform proficiency testing and offer consulting services.
Fresh cultures in Amies transport medium with activated charcoal are best for shipping strains. It is essential that pure cultures are sent. Submissions should always be accompanied by the origin of the isolates and the necessary clinical and epidemiological data. Please use the corresponding submission form.
Last updated: 07.08.2023