10 Tips to Control Campylobacter on Your Poultry Farm

Campylobacter makes people sick at a cost of billions per year

Campylobacter makes people sick at a cost of billions per year

Campylobacter spp. is one of the most important foodborne bacteria, causing gastroenteritis in humans. Campylobacteriosis is considered the most frequently reported food-borne disease in humans in developed countries.
The annual cost of campylobacteriosis to public health systems, including the loss of individual health and productivity is estimated at:

  • over €2.4 billion in the EU
  • US$1.2 to $4 billion in the United States

Worryingly, the number of confirmed Campylobacter spp. infection cases in humans has gone up in recent years, as shown in Figure 1.

Poultry under the spotlight

Figure 1. Trend in reported confirmed human cases of campylobacteriosis in the
EU/EEA, 2017
Figure 1. Trend in reported confirmed human cases of campylobacteriosis in the EU/EEA, 2017

Campylobacter spp. are part of the microflora present in the digestive tracts of many wild and domestic animals including pigs, cattle and poultry, without inducing clinical signs. However, scientists around the world widely agree that poultry products, including meat, are the primary source of campylobacteriosis in humans.

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in 2017, 37.4% of 13445 sampling units (single and batch samples) of fresh broiler meat were found to be positive for Campylobacter spp. This number for turkey birds were 31.5% (in 1028 sampling units tested for campylobacter). The proportion of positive units in poultry birds, other than broilers and turkeys were 27.7% (in 1425 sample units).
In light of the economic and health problems associated with campylobacteriosis, serious discussions between government officials in different countries about the possibility of imposing obligatory controls for reducing Campylobacter spp. in poultry operations have been started.

Why Campylobacter spp. is hard to control

Campylobacter bacteria do not proliferate outside the alimentary tract of warm-blooded animals. They can survive up to several weeks in food products, particularly those stored at low temperatures. Campylobacter spp. colonize the mucosa of the cecum and cloaca crypts of infected chickens. They may also infect the spleen and liver, and circulate in the blood.

A single gram of infected chicken feces can contain up to one hundred billion Campylobacter. Even this level of infection may not cause changes in cecal mucosa. In commercial production, birds carry high levels of Campylobacter spp. in the intestine as part of their normal microflora without showing any signs of clinical disease. In addition, there is no change in mortality or feed conversion rates in infected flocks.

When and how Campylobacter infect poultry

EFSA found Campylobacter in nearly 50% of fresh broiler meat samples!

The prevalence of Campylobacter-positive poultry flocks is generally high, though this varies by region, season and production type (intensive, free range, organic, etc.). In some cases, the contamination is as little as 2% of the flock, and in other cases, contamination can reach 100%.
It is rare to find Campylobacter in birds younger than three weeks old. Scientists believe that this may relate to the presence of maternal antibodies and the rapid development of a chick’s gastrointestinal tract and microbiota. However, after three weeks, even if one bird in the flock becomes infected, the whole flock can be infected in less than four days. Vectors of Campylobacter transmission include:

  • Feces
  • Insects
  • Water
  • Rodents
  • People
  • Vehicles
  • Equipment

Effective vaccine lacking

Work to develop vaccines against campylobacteriosis both in animal and human health sectors is already well established. Within the human sector, no vaccine to prevent Campylobacter-associated illness has been approved by a regulatory authority anywhere in the world. The main problem likely stems from an incomplete understanding of Campylobacter jejuni pathogenesis and antigenic diversity, as well as its association with some post-infectious syndromes. Within the poultry industry, numerous strategies have been developed and experimentally checked in attempts to create an effective vaccine. However, no efficient vaccine against Campylobacter is currently available.

Why antibiotics are not effective against campylobacter infection in poultry

Campylobacter spp. is not recognized as a specific pathogen under commercial conditions. Therefore, treatment of the flock is not a consideration. One must be cautious of the zoonotic risk associated with C. jejuni and its ability to rapidly develop antibiotic resistance. In reality, an antibiotic control strategy would not be a practical choice for management of Campylobacter on commercial poultry farms.

Scandinavian experiences point to a preventive approach

Scandinavian countries have historically had a much lower prevalence of campylobacteriosis compared to elsewhere. The approach to Campylobacter control in Scandinavia is based on prevention. A preventative approach spans the entire broiler meat production chain from farm to fork.

A preventative approach to Campylobacter focuses on three main risk factors:

  1. Poultry flock prevalence
  2. Carcass contamination
  3. Kitchen hygiene

Among these three, flock prevalence is likely the most important one. Poultry flock prevalence can be addressed in two ways, namely by 1) preventing birds from being infected by Campylobacter and 2) reducing the concentration of Campylobacter within birds’ gastrointestinal tracts. Biosecurity plays a role in both types of prevention.

Here are 10 tips for maintaining high levels of biosecurity and keeping Campylobacter at bay.

Figure 2. Illustration of a dwarf wall in a poultry house
Figure 2. Illustration of a dwarf wall in a poultry house

Tip 1 - Segregate the clean and dirty areas of the poultry house entrance with a physical barrier (dwarf wall)

A dwarf wall (Figure 2) represents a small investment, though they are widely appreciated on farms that have them because they help stop the cross contamination of Campylobacter and other pathogens.

  • Use dedicated footwear and overalls in the clean area for the entire growing cycle.
  • Have one disinfectant bath inside the clean area and one disinfectant bath outside the clean area directly in front of the actual chicken house door..
  • Better to permanently keep clean footwear in the disinfectant bath when not in use. Change the content of the disinfectant baths every three days.
  • Clean the area within the wall boundary regularly with a dedicated dustpan and broom that stay within the clean area and is not used anywhere else.

Tip 2 - Keep equipment in the poultry house for the whole cycle

Things such as stepladders, buckets, catching bird fences, brooms, etc. should stay in the poultry house for an entire cycle. Avoid transporting these items from one house to another to reduce the risk of contamination.

Tip 3 - Practice regular hand hygiene

Equip the entrance of each poultry house with a sink or wash basin with warm water, soap, paper towels, and hand sanitizer. If the full list is cost prohibitive, be sure to stock up on hand sanitizer, which can still be a big help.

Tip 4 - Wear disposable overalls

Disposable overalls are a cheap and practical way to greatly reduce cross contamination. Be sure to dispose of them after each house visit.

Tip 5 - Apply rodent control

Most farmers are familiar with the process of rodent control. It is important to follow through with the opening, cleaning, and placing of new bait in rat bait stations at the beginning of each crop. Remember to record rodent observations and dates. Rodent bait suppliers are able to provide more education and training as required.

Tip 6 - Ensure good water quality

Regardless of the quality of water coming to your farm, the drinking water system should be properly cleaned and maintained to prevent it becoming a vector for pathogens. It is common to wash and clean lines at the beginning and end of each crop, but this overlooks hygiene measures that can be taken during the growing period. Chlorine, hydrogen peroxide and acidifiers are commonly used to ensure proper water sanitation, control water hardness and acid levels, and prevent biofilm.

Tip 7 - Withdraw feed between 8 and 12 hours prior to slaughter

Broilers’ gastrointestinal tract is emptied and flattened with relatively mild sloughing after 8 to 12 hours of fasting. The extent of cross-contamination will be considerably decreased if birds experience a correct feed withdrawal period before their transport to the slaughterhouse. Birds that have had a proper feed withdrawal period prior to their entry to the slaughterhouse may carry less contamination on their feathers and feet, etc., because they excrete much less fecal material during transport. Also, cleaner birds going into scalding tanks may cause less contamination to the water which is largely recycled during the operation. Do not withdraw feed too early. As withdrawal time increases over 14 hours, intestinal integrity will decrease and the probability of intestinal breakage and subsequent contamination will increase.

Tip 8 - Educate catching and transport teams

Catching teams are one of the main sources of Campylobacter cross-contamination between farms. Stress makes birds more susceptible to pathogens as well. Ensure that all visitors and staff adhere to your biosecurity protocols, and follow proper catch and transport procedures in order to keep stress and disease to a minimum.

Tip 9 - Discuss lairage and slaughterhouse practices

Cross-contamination between slaughterhouse and farms is another major cause of Campylobacter occurrence in farms. Catching vehicles contaminated during transport may travel to three or four farms every day. Catching crates should be properly cleaned and disinfected after each delivery. Birds may be kept in lairage (I.e the factory yard) or even in the transport vehicle for up to six hours. In such conditions, birds shed a considerable number of microorganisms present in their gut, including Campylobacter. Speak to your slaughterhouse manager regularly to see that the necessary steps are followed and that everyone involved understands their roles and responsibilities.

Tip 10 - Control contamination within the birds’ gut

Certain feed additives that support gut health and integrity can play a role in limiting Campylobacter growth and colonization. Look for probiotic products that support beneficial bacteria: these competitively exclude harmful or unwanted bacteria in the birds’ gastrointestinal tracts by colonizing the gut and using up nutrients before problems arise; a microbial solution to a microbial problem.

Reference

European Food Safety Authority. (2016). The European Union summary report on trends and sources of zoonoses, zoonotic agents and food-borne outbreaks in 2017.

In Brief

  • Campylobacter is one of the most common and costly food-borne bacteria, infecting humans primarily through contaminated poultry products.
  • Chickens can carry Campylobacter without exhibiting any signs or symptoms of illness, hence it is not recognized or treated as a pathogen in poultry flocks.
  • Prevention is the most effective tool against Campylobacter. Follow the 10 tips suggested in this article to prevent contamination in poultry products.