Campylobacter is a persistent and widespread pathogen. According to the CDC, it was responsible (along with Salmonella) for the highest number of bacterial foodborne illnesses last year, causing more than 8,000 infections on its own.
That makes the work of Dr. Natalia Jones, senior research associate at the University of East Anglia, and her team pressing. In research published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, they laid out their findings, that in the North West and East Anglia regions of the U.K. the pathogen is present in 55.8 percent and 38.6 percent of soils, respectively.
In fact, the percentages were from socks—which Dr. Jones’ novel research method relied on to gather soil.
“We have developed a new method of sampling for Campylobacter,” she explains to Food Quality & Safety. “We have shown that using boot socks worn over regular walking shoes is an effective method of sampling for Campylobacter over distance in the environment. The key difference from traditional sampling, such as taking a soil core, is that it samples the interaction between the human and the soil. It is highly possible that others may use this new method in the future.”
While it’s long been an accepted fact that Campylobacter was present in soil, Dr. Jones says, “What was novel was that after a walk in the countryside around 50 percent of the boot socks were positive for Campylobacter.”
The 55.8 percent of socks that showed Campylobacter presence in North West, versus the 38.6 percent of socks in East Anglia, reflect the wider use of the land by livestock in the North West region. The winter seasons showed the highest incidences of Campylobacter, followed by spring, since precipitation provided conditions favorable to the pathogen. The species they found most was C. jejuni, associated with sheep in the North West and wild birds in East Anglia, along with C. coli, associated with livestock, in the North West.
Paul T. Price, poultry specialist for Diamond V, notes that in poultry production, “If the farm environment is positive for Campylobacter (due to a variety of causes, like foot traffic, pest and rodents, or soil contamination), the birds ingest the organism and begin to replicate it in their GI tracts. They then spread it to one another ‘horizontally’ via excretion of the organism and ingestion by other birds. Due to the nature of poultry industry farm housing, birds are walking through litter, and in many cases are known to peck the litter (thus ingesting the Campylobacter fecal-oral route). As well, many of them can get their feet into the feed at a young age (thus contaminating the feed with fecal traces from their feet).”
Once contaminated birds enter processing facilities, Price says, the plants have to employ a variety of interventions in order to reduce the presence and amount of the pathogen by manipulating temperature and pH.
“The most commonly used and effective interventions include peracetic acid, chlorine, and combinations of organic acids,” Price says. “In recent years, in an effort to keep up with USDA-FSIS–mandated parts rinse prevalence standards, plants have incorporated ‘dips’ in which the parts (such as leg quarters, breasts, and wings) will pass through a pool of antimicrobial intervention.”
Gerry Broski, senior director of food safety marketing for Neogen, Lansing, Mich., explains that Campylobacter can be found in produce, dairy products, and contaminated water, in addition to meat and poultry.
“Typically, it is introduced into food production environments as a raw product or ingredient,” he says. “Campylobacter (often called ‘Campy’) survives in food room temperature environments as well as refrigerated environments, but is killed by cooking.” Broski underlines that the steps required for reducing Campylobacter contamination risk in production facilities should be included in a properly developed Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) or Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls (HARPC) plan. “This would include adherence to sanitary dressing procedures, sanitary standard operating procedures, and verification of effectiveness,” he stresses. “If the facility falls under FSMA, then a preventive control plan with environmental monitoring would be required. Depending on the type of production the facility is engaged in, hygienic slaughter and processing procedures are required at the beginning of the processing of raw materials. Every effort should be made to prevent contamination or cross contamination with raw materials during the process, including proper sanitization of equipment and tools. Proper employee training is a key to pathogen risk mitigation.”