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Outside the Lab Microbiology and immunology, Profession, Regulation and standards

Playing Chicken With Chicken

Credited with nearly one million cases of food poisoning each year in the United States alone (1), it’s no surprise that Campylobacter species are the major causes of foodborne gastroenteritis worldwide. Perhaps less well known is the fact that the species responsible for most human disease, C. jejuni and C. coli, are rapidly increasing their ability to resist antibiotics. This is a major problem: with Campylobacter contamination present on an estimated half of commercially available chickens (2), and over half of those bacteria resistant to common drugs like ciprofloxacin and nalidixic acid, it’s becoming more and more difficult to treat cases of campylobacteriosis.

The increase in resistance is at least partly due to the routine use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics in poultry farming. The drugs are used to treat or even prevent disease in chickens raised in crowded environments, where a single outbreak of infection can result in significant cost to the farm. But they’re also used to treat food poisoning in human patients – and if farming practices render the bacteria resistant to fluoroquinolones, doctors will lose one of their best options for eliminating human intestinal infections.

What can be done? Some countries, including the United States and Australia, ban the drugs completely in the poultry industry. In those that don’t already have a ban in place, experts recommend that fluoroquinolone use be phased out. Organizations like the British Poultry Council have declared a commitment to reducing antibiotic use, and state that it’s already decreasing (3) – so hopefully, C. jejuni and C. coli will escape their fate as an object lesson in the effect that agricultural overprescription can have on human disease…

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  1. NO Kaakoush et al., “Global epidemiology of Campylobacter infection”, Clin Microbiol Rev, 28, 687–720 (2015). PMID: 26062576.
  2. Food Standards Agency, “Year 2 of a UK-wide survey of campylobacter contamination on fresh chickens at retail (July 2015 to March 2016)”. Available at: Accessed October 15, 2016.
  3. M Davies, “Soaring levels of antibiotic resistance found in supermarket chickens” (2016). Available at: Accessed October 15, 2016.
About the Author
Michael Schubert

While obtaining degrees in biology from the University of Alberta and biochemistry from Penn State College of Medicine, I worked as a freelance science and medical writer. I was able to hone my skills in research, presentation and scientific writing by assembling grants and journal articles, speaking at international conferences, and consulting on topics ranging from medical education to comic book science. As much as I’ve enjoyed designing new bacteria and plausible superheroes, though, I’m more pleased than ever to be at Texere, using my writing and editing skills to create great content for a professional audience.

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