Campylobacter-Tainted Poultry Tops List of Food-Pathogen Combinations

Campylobacter-tainted poultry tops the list of food-and-pathogen combinations that account for the greatest burdens on public health, according to a new report from the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, released April 28.

While Salmonella is the leading foodborne pathogen overall and poultry is the food product associated with the most disease (among 12 ranked), it’s the Campylobacter-poultry combination that causes the greatest disease burden, according to the researchers. The report, Ranking the Risks: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations with the Greatest Burden on Public Health, is the first comprehensive ranking of pathogen-food risk pairings to be done for the U.S.

To estimate the disease burden of pathogen-food combinations, based on dollar costs and quality adjusted life years (QALYs) lost, the Florida researchers developed a tool called the Foodborne Illness Risk Ranking Model and used it to analyze more than 10 years’ worth of data. A total of 168 food-pathogen pairings were analyzed. Campylobacter-tainted poultry, which causes more than 600,000 illnesses and 55 deaths a year, costs some $1.3 billion and 9,500 QALYs.

The other nine pathogen-food combinations are:

Toxoplasma in pork: $1.2 billion and 4,500 QALYs

Listeria in deli meats: $1 billion and 4,000 QALYs

Salmonella in poultry: $700 million and 3,600 QALYs

Listeria in dairy products: $700 million and 2,600 QALYs

Salmonella in complex foods: $600 million and 3,200 QALYs

• Norovirus in complex foods: $900 million and 2,300 QALYs

Salmonella in produce: $550 million and 2,800 QALYs

Toxoplasma in beef: $700 million and 2,500 QALYs

Salmonella in eggs: $400 million and 1,900 QALYs

Many of the leading pathogen-food pairings didn’t surprise Jay Neal, PhD, assistant professor at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. “We’ve known about Campylobacter and chicken, and Salmonella and chicken, for years. The Toxoplasma gondii in pork threw me off; that’s interesting, and there may be some opportunities there.”

Now that the key combinations have been identified, Dr. Neal said, it’s time to develop science-based interventions in the food and restaurant industries. “Let’s go back and reinstate hot holding and proper cooking to internal temperatures,” he said. “It’s amazing that Campylobacter is still around so much because it’s really heat-sensitive. If you cook it properly, it’s not really an issue, so education is of the essence.”

The report may upend some previously held assumptions, said Sophia Kathariou, PhD, professor of food science and microbiology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “We previously believed that one of the most problematic foods was contaminated produce,” Dr. Kathariou said. “But this analysis makes clear that it’s not just the produce; it’s produce in combination with specific pathogens. Any time you can prioritize components of a complex issue, it’s very useful.”

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