Campylobacteriosis, the most reported zoonosis in Europe

In the last years, campylobacteriosis, which is the disease caused by Campylobacter spp., was the most reported zoonosis in Europe. Campylobacter infections in humans generally occur as a result of improper handling and/or consumption of contaminated food, especially poultry meat. The number of cases and the ascendant trend of the disease are worrying the authorities.

Focus on Portuguese households

Eighteen households from Porto, Portugal, were visited by a team of Portuguese researchers in order to observe the consumers’ behavior when preparing a meal that included poultry. The visits aimed to evaluate the consumers handling practices and to understand their beliefs on what is safe or unsafe during the poultry cooking process.

Researchers involved

The research was conducted in the frame of SafeConsume by a group of scientists belonging to different research centers from Portugal. The key researchers involved in the study were: Maria João Cardoso (first author; Universidade Católica Portuguesa), Vânia Ferreira (Universidade Católica Portuguesa), Mónica Truninger (Universidade de Lisboa), Rui Maia (Universidade Fernando Pessoa), and Paula Teixeira (corresponding author; Universidade Católica Portuguesa)

Research details

The research started in October 2017, when three pilot households were visited. The other visits took place between February and April 2018 (15 experimental households). The participants were asked to prepare a meal with chicken and a raw vegetable salad the way they would normally do. During cooking sessions, sociologists filmed the procedure, asking the consumers, at the same time, to explain their food handling practices. Microbiologists were in charge of the poultry samples collection before cooking. They also sampled kitchen surfaces and utensils (kitchen cloth, hand, towel, sponge, cutting, boards, sink) before and after food preparation. Microbiological analysis revealed cross contamination events in 4 kitchens, in which case Campylobacter was transferred from the raw poultry to either cutting boards, sinks or kitchen cloths, as a consequence of improper food handling practices (rinsing the chicken under running tap water before being cooked, contact of the kitchen cloths with the raw meat) or hands hygiene.

When the window towards infection is opened?

This study showed that when consumers adopt scientifically recognized risk factor (such as rinsing the chicken), this contributes to the spreading of Campylobacter in ordinary domestic kitchens and opens a window of opportunity towards infection.

Washing the poultry before cooking is still a common food handling practice in Portuguese kitchens, as 12 out of 18 participants in the study performed this step. Remarkably, all the elderly participants rinsed the chicken to be cooked, which suggests that this is a traditional habit that can be transmitted from one generation to another. This statement is also supported by the fact that some of the younger participants in the study motivated their action as a practice learned from their parents. Other reasons of this food handling practice are related to the place where the chicken was bought, food safety and perception on the meat aspect.

How Campylobacter is spread around kitchens

The results of this study highlight that rinsing the raw chicken before cooking or handling it with the bare hands without washing them properly after this practice can lead to kitchen environment contamination with Campylobacter. Also, since this foodborne pathogen can survive on different surfaces or objects from the kitchen, it can be transferred to food that does not need a thermal treatment prior consumption and foodborne illnesses may occur.

Advice to consumers: Wash hands, surfaces and utensils, but do not wash poultry meat!

Based on the study results, it is recommended to consumers to cook the chicken without washing it in advance and to wash their hands properly whenever they touch the raw meat. Also, all the surfaces and utensils that come into contact with the raw poultry should be cleaned thoroughly or changed, if possible, before using them to prepare other food intended to be consumed without being heat treated. Moreover, it is recommended to consumers to use disposable cloths/paper during the cleaning procedures or to change the cloths after use. Another advice related to good food handling practices would be to keep the raw poultry away from ready to eat food products, such as bread and vegetables, while storing and cooking.

Consumers’ wrong beliefs with respect to food handling practices could be changed by information campaigns performed with the help of mass media and retail. Generally, inherited beliefs on food preparation are the most difficult to change.

Raising consumers’ awareness with respect to proper handling and cooking of poultry is crucial to decrease the health risk associated with this bacterium Paula Teixeira

do not wash poultry meat

Study on consumers’ practices: to be continued

Information campaigns should be tailored to the consumers’ kitchen practices, which may vary depending on economic, social and cultural factors. Thus, in order to provide easily understandable and convincing information to consumers, investigation of their practices according to the factors mentioned above should be performed. Soon, the SafeConsume will present what happens in consumers’ kitchens across Europe in relation with washing chicken.

Link to article

Maria João Cardoso, Vânia Ferreira, Mónica Truninger, Rui Maia, Paula Teixeira. 2021. Cross-contamination events of Campylobacter spp. in domestic kitchens associated with consumer handling practices of raw poultry, International Journal of Food Microbiology, 338:108984. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2020.108984

Links to relevant statistics related to Campylobacter infections