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How to prevent campylobacter in the summer heat

Cleanliness, careful cooking and chilling will keep campylobacter at bay.

The summer season is a great time to share celebratory meals with family and friends. Although such occasions can be joyous, they can present a greater risk of food poisoning, especially for young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Campylobacter remains the most commonly notified, potentially food-borne disease in New Zealand. It’s a nasty illness of variable severity, with typical symptoms including abdominal pain, fever and diarrhoea.

In 2018, there were 142 cases of the illness reported per 100,000 people, of which nearly 65% resulted from food-borne transmission. That’s significantly higher than the next most common cause of food poisoning, cryptosporidiosis, with 33 cases per 100,000 people reported in 2018.

About three-quarters of campylobacter cases are caused by poultry. That’s not surprising, as up to 90% of fresh chicken sold in New Zealand is contaminated with the bacteria, according to a 2018 study by the University of Otago, Wellington.

The good news is that simple food-safety precautions, such as washing your hands and utensils with hot water and detergent after chicken preparation, can achieve a 50% reduction in contamination.

Campylobacter cases routinely peak in December and January. In 2018, there were 918 notifications in December, as compared with 395 in April.

Of those cases, the highest rates were among children aged one to four. The highest rates of hospitalisation were for people aged 70 years and over (46 admissions per 100,000 people).

To avoid nasty food-borne illnesses this summer, use the three Cs:

Clean

Clean your hands before and after handling raw meat. Wash chopping boards, dishes and all utensils in hot, soapy water and then dry them properly. It is better to let them air dry than use a tea towel.

Cook

Cook meat thoroughly, especially chicken and mince, until the juices run clear. To ensure you kill all bacteria, use a meat thermometer. When tested in the thickest part, poultry is safe to eat when it reaches 75°C. Reheat meat until it is hot, rather than warm, to kill any bacteria. Campylobacter is sensitive to heat and is destroyed within minutes at high temperatures.

Chill

Chill meat to avoid the so-called temperature “danger zone” – food-poisoning bacteria grow rapidly between 5°C and 60°C. Unfortunately, we can’t just put a large roast chicken or turkey straight into the fridge as it is likely to raise the temperature of the other food inside.

Let large roasts cool for 30 minutes on the bench before chilling. Separate them into portions as this will speed up the cooling process, then cover and store in a refrigerator set at between 2°C and 5°C.

Never leave roast meat at room temperature for more than two hours. And, if the room is warm, you should refrigerate sooner rather than later as bacteria multiply more quickly.

It typically takes up to four hours for food-poisoning bacteria to grow to dangerous levels. If the total time between 5°C and 60°C is:

  • Less than two hours – the meat can be used immediately or refrigerated for later use.
  • Between two hours and four hours – the meat must be used immediately or thrown out.
  • More than four hours – don’t eat the meat, throw it out.

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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