Investigating around poultry diseases and human health

Why has there not been adequate action to protect human health from poultry’s bacteria? Currently, is enough being done by United Kingdom hatcheries and retailers to prevent further outbreaks of campylobacter? Moreover, why only recently have the government and other institutions been seriously interested in the matter?

According to the Oxford Journal article titled ‘Campylobacter jejuni Infections: Update on Emerging Issues and Trends’, it was determined in 1980 that ‘Campylobacter species are one of the most common bacterial causes of diarrhoea worldwide.’ Nevertheless, in Britain over the last thirty-five years, little has been done to tackle the problem, since the bacteria have been greatly underestimated, as a result, it has become strong enough to kill. Indeed, among the 280,000 people who every year contract the infection, 100 die. Furthermore, although very few institutions in the early years of the new millennium started to campaign to cut campylobacter in UK poultry, only in the last five years has the problem been addressed properly. This article explores the reasons that led to these statistics.

A massive quantity of poultry meat is consumed in the United Kingdom every year, specifically, as the latest monthly report of the National Statistics shows, last October the ‘total UK poultry meat production was about 171 thousand tonnes.’ Furthermore, the National Farmers Union states that poultry ‘is the most consumed meat of the country, up to 41% of total meat consumption.’ Steadily increasing. This means that, if nothing changes, more and more birds will carry the bacteria, consequently, more and more people will be infected by it, risking their lives.

Dr Marc Cooper, Senior Farm Animal Welfare Scientist at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, explains a key factor in the spread of bacteria, which is “a process known as thinning. This is where you would place a number of birds within a shed and you increase the birds up to a maximum stocking density and then you remove a proportion of those birds from the shed for the slaughter and you leave another proportion of the birds in the shed. This process involves people who go into the shed and catch the birds with equipment and machinery as well” with the after-effect of drastically changing the temperature. All these events stress the birds that remain in the shed and make them “more susceptible to infections of campylobacter, increasing its levels.”

Furthermore, as Phil Brooke, Welfare and Education Development Manager at Compassion in World Farming, says “the real problem is they [farmers] have got too many chickens, bred too intensively, and the combination of a stressed animal with a poor immune response means that you will get rapid spread of disease, once you get in to the shed it would spread widely.”

The bacteria is not only in the bloodstream but also on the skin of the birds. Moreover, it is important to emphasise that the bacteria has also been found in red meat, unpasteurised milk and untreated water. Besides eating badly cooked meat, the quickest way of the transmission of the bug is by hand, opening raw meat packaging and washing the food. Indeed, not only hands are contaminated, but also the place where it is washed and all nearby food. In addition, once hands are contaminated, the germs are ingested by biting nails and eating food with fingers. The solution to this problem might be cooking poultry meat without washing it, although this idea does not seem to convince consumers. Normally, the outcomes of the infection are only embarrassing abdominal pain and dysentery but sometimes can develop into fever, paralysis and even death.

Senselessly, all this suffering, either from this painful disease or a family member who has been lethally struck by the infection, could have been avoided. If there had been more action from the government and institutions to prevent germ dispersion, then this would have lowered the level of contamination.

Dr Cooper says that one of the reasons for neglecting the epidemic bacteria could be that “they [scientists] have not had a sophisticated mechanism for setting the causes [of campylobacter] as the way it manifests itself in humans is as food poisoning and perhaps it was just an effect of that. To be fair it is tricky to know.”

A Food Standard Agency’s spokesman, regarding the reasons of the past underestimation of the potentially fatal risks of the bacteria and its exponential increase, adds “In terms of recorded cases it has, over a number of years it did increase. The cause might have been because there has not been a better recording of cases of campylobacter food poisoning. ”

However, the real reason discovered with this research is that the industrial farming lobby over the last decades has been discouraging legislation to protect the welfare of animals. This is because there is a huge pressure on the farming industry to produce more and cheaper food and this is often at the expenses of human health and welfare and animal welfare. Ironically, the pressure comes from consumers who more and more are buying food in cheaper retailers, consequently, the big stores press farmers to lower their prices. This is clearly a vicious circle. Furthermore, as Brooke points out “If we produce lots of cheap meat, that’s not really cheap, we’re paying price through disease, health service is paying the prices looking after them [the sick]. Cheap meat often looks like very expensive.” Thus, it should have been solved by the political class creating new legislation, but politicians have been pressed by the multinationals to ‘jump over’ that specific line of their agenda so that they have not been keen to address the issue.

Nonetheless, around five years ago, the British government machinery was turned on with the subsequent boom of anti-campylobacter campaigns of the last couple of years. Actually, it has been enlightening to discover why finally human welfare has become more valuable than sterile economic policies.

Of course, Europe has had an important role in setting in motion the process with its Council Directive 2007/43/EC of 28th June 2007 about animal welfare standards, and the survey on Campylobacter in 2008, both cover all members of the Union. However, the institutions became aware of the dangers of the bug as more and more food safety scandals were ‘shouting’ from the media and the government has become increasingly concerned to be seen to do something. Furthermore, the exponential rise of public concern has built up more and more pressure groups which have intensified public voice to the nth degree. Therefore, in March 2013 government and industry during a workshop teamed up against campylobacter. Eventually. Indeed, as the FSA’s spokesman states, “That’s why the food industry has rounded up with strategy and targets.” Thus, since then, all-powerful organisations of the country have agreed to fight the bacteria together. Actually, as he adds “we are campaigning with other government departments, other agencies, as importantly, with the food industry as well.” In fact “campylobacter campaign involves the whole food chain: farmers, processors and retailers and also consumers because we do have consumers’ campaigns to raise awareness of campylobacter risks.”

Ultimately, there is plenty of work to do. Firstly, legislation at a national and European level in order to regulate the procedures of poultry processing, which is being done by RSPCA, who from the 1st of January will ban the process of thinning for its members. Legislation is a crucial matter, even if FSA thinks differently, “In terms of legislation, all the food safety laws we have come from Europe…..we always argue that it’s easier to get voluntary action from industry to tackle the problem than to go through Europe in order to try to find a legislative answer, so, it is more effective to get voluntary action, which we will be doing and we think it is starting to have an effect.” Practically, “the retailers actually have got to work with the processors where they have chickens from because the retailers have influence as they have contracts with dairy processors to supply with chickens.” Specifically, “they should work with processors on interventions during the processing stage so that they can put pressure on their own processor to ensure the birds that their supply has low levels of Campylobacter.” Regarding the packagings of the product, “they should also provide information on labelling for consumers, so, perhaps they stop spreading campylobacter. It would help them [the retailers] and the consumers.” For their part, farmers should behave like Michael Attwell at Attwell Farm, who declares “with campylobacter we use the normal procedures, sanitarisation and so on. We try everything we can, obviously, to make sure that we don’t put the birds to any more exposure than what they already are at.”

Overall, the most important thing all processors who work with animals should become aware is to consider animals as living beings rather than only edible products, this is the crux of the speech. Moreover, as Brooke states, “What’s important they address is the governments do not think that there is a simple technical fix to solve these problems: you can’t just get the vaccine, you can’t just get the drug, you can’t just have better security, you actually have to start keeping animals better.”


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