Most Fresh Poultry in Israel Contains Dangerous Bacteria, Study Finds

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A poultry farm.Credit: Limor Edrey

Nearly all fresh poultry in Israel contains bacteria that are harmful to humans, according to a study by the Egg and Poultry Board that has not yet been released to the public but whose findings were obtained by TheMarker.

At a closed conference of the Agriculture Ministry’s Veterinary Service, Dr. Anat Weissman of the Egg and Poultry Board said 93% of Israeli poultry contained Campylobacter bacteria. The conclusion was reached after a year of research.

The problem doesn’t as a rule affect frozen poultry, because freezing kills the bacteria, but supermarkets say 90% of the chicken sold in Israel is refrigerated, not frozen.

Symptoms of food poisoning from Campylobacter usually appear two to five days after eating contaminated food, but they can take up to 10 days. The most common symptom of a Campylobacter infection is diarrhea, which is often bloody. In some cases it can lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome and reactive arthritis.

In the United States, Campylobacter jejuni is the most common cause of bacterial food-borne illness. A 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control estimated it causes approximately 845,000 illnesses in the United States each year.

In Israel, it is the leading cause of stomach illness, ahead even of its better-known cousin, salmonella. According to the Health Ministry, Campylobacter caused 8,000 cases of gastrointestinal infection in recent years, compared with fewer than 3,000 from salmonella. Although the number declined last year, it is higher than in 2006.

Three years ago, two children, aged 4 and 5, were admitted to Schneider Medical Center in Petah Tikva with Campylobacter bacteria and partial paralysis.

The agriculture and health ministries discounted any possible threat and said they conducted inspections and vaccinations according to standards used in other developed countries, but stressed that fresh chicken must be properly cooked before it’s eaten.

“Everywhere in the world, humans and animals carry bacteria that cause disease,” the Agriculture Ministry said. “In the next several months, the ministry will begin a program focused on reducing bacteria, similar to programs in the European Union and the United States.”

The Health Ministry said there had been no increase in Israel of illness from Campylobacte in recent years. The morbidity rate per 100,000 people in recent years from the bacteria was 54.5 last year, about the same as in Europe, it said.

Cooking poultry kills the bacteria but the risk remains even when it’s done properly that the bacteria will spread by kitchen utensils or other food that come into contact with the meat while it’s being prepared. Splashing water while cleaning a chicken can also spread the bacteria.

Unlike the United States and many other developed countries, Israel doesn’t require any special labeling explaining how to handle and store poultry to reduce risk of infection.

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