The campylobacter family of bacteria has been found on 73% of chickens in supermarkets in the United Kingdom.
While no similar research has been done in this country, a researcher believes that figure would be comparable in South Africa, a nation with a love of chicken.
Campylobacter causes severe diarrhoea. While human mortality is rare, it can be harmful to people with weakened immune systems, and to babies.
There is also a link between campylobacter and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis.
According to the SA National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), rates of campylobacter infection are now believed to be far higher than previously thought, after tests were carried out on children with severe diarrhoea.
The NICD found that campylobacter was detected in about 13% of cases.
“Campylobacter is found naturally in a chicken’s gut. You can’t get rid of it,” the SA Poultry Association’s Dr Louis Theron said.
Unisa researcher Antje Bartkowiak-Higgo did a study of campylobacter rates in a South African poultry abattoir in 2005.
“I would say that what is seen in Britain is similar to what is seen here,” she said.
Bartkowiak-Higgo found that an average of 24% of chicken skin samples and livers showed campylobacter contamination.
According to the latest information by centres like the NICD that study human infection rates, Theron said, campylobacter was expected to exceed salmonella in incidents of food-borne diseases.
Ultimately, the prevention of campylobacter infections comes down to consumers.
Theron said the meat had to be cooked properly.
Care had to be taken when washing chicken carcasses, as the water could carry the bacteria onto other food.