What is Campylobacter?

Adair Hoover,
Home & Garden Information Center

Did you know that the cost of illness from foodborne pathogens in the United States is more than $12.7 billion annually? The combined fact that these illnesses can sometimes cause long term health problems and loss of life should be a staggering reminder that there is no such thing as being too conscientious about safe food handling.

Recent data from the CDC and a comprehensive study from researchers at the University of Florida confirm that the bacterium Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States. The number of sicknesses caused by Campylobacter increased in 2012. This bacterium, while not as well-known as Salmonella or E. coli, actually tops the list and poultry contaminated with Campylobacter sickens more than 600,000 Americans every year with an annual cost of $1.2 million.

A recent report “Ranking the Risks: the 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations with the Greatest Burden on Public Health” has shown the top five leading foodborne pathogens to be Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Toxoplasma gonii and Norovirus.  This comprehensive ranking of pathogen-food combinations was published by researchers at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute and is the first of its kind for the United Sates. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tracks infection rates of foodborne pathogens and reported that in 2012 there was a 14 percent rise in the rate of Campylobacter as compared to the same period of 2006-2008.

So what is Campylobacter? Campylobacter jejuni is a bacterium that causes diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever. Symptoms normally occur within two to five days after exposure to the organism. The most common sources of this bacterium are raw and undercooked meat and poultry, raw milk and untreated water. The infectious disease, campylobacteriosis, typically lasts about one week. Campylobacter infection does not usually cause death and some people who become infected never have any symptoms. However, people with compromised immune systems may experience a serious life-threatening infection.

Campylobacter is most common in the summer and it only takes a few Campylobacter cells (fewer than 500) to make a person sick. Even one drop of juice from raw chicken can have enough Campylobacter in it to infect a person! So, taking extra food safety precautions in the upcoming months is advised. To help prevent this illness follow these steps:

  • Cook all poultry products thoroughly. Make sure that the meat is cooked throughout (no longer pink) and any juices run clear. All poultry should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F.
  • If you are served undercooked poultry in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before preparing food. You should be washing for 20 seconds to remove all contaminants from your hands.
  • Wash hands with soap after handling raw foods of animal origin and before touching anything else.
  • Prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen by using separate cutting boards for foods of animal origin and other foods and by thoroughly cleaning all cutting boards, countertops, and utensils with soap and hot water after preparing raw food of animal origin.
  • Do not drink unpasteurized milk or untreated surface water.
  • Make sure that anyone with diarrhea, especially children, washes their hands carefully and frequently with soap to reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
  • Wash hands with soap after contact with pet feces.

For more information see HGIC 3742, Campylobacter jejuni.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Campylobacter, CDC, 2013, http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/campylobacter/#what
  2. Andrews, James, CDC Progress Report: Campylobacter and Vibrio Rates Rose in 2012, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19, April, 2013, http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/04/campylobacter-and-vibrio-rates-rose-in-2012-cdc-progress-report/#.UX6XK6PWjGJ
  3. Ranking the Risk: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations with the Greatest Burden on Public Health. M.B Batz, S. Hoffman and J.G. Morris, Jr., April 28, 2011. University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute. http://www.epi.ufl.edu/?q=rankingtherisks
  4. Foodsafety.gov, Campylobacter, Foodsafety.gov, June 2013, http://www.foodsafety.gov/poisoning/causes/bacteriaviruses/campylobacter/

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