Campylobacter! Most people had never heard of it; much less did they know how to pronounce it. But there it was screaming from the front page of the New York Times on October 20, and shortly thereafter blaring from televisions and radios worldwide. Worse yet, whatever it is the chicken in supermarkets was apparently crawling with it--and it makes people sick.

This latest indication the U.S. food supply is a bit ill began when the Times reported that a study conducted by the Minnesota Health Department found that chicken meat in 70 percent of samples collected from supermarkets was contaminated with campylobacter, a bacterium that normally lives in the guts of poultry.

More troubling, 20 percent of the affected meat carried a strain of campylobacter that is resistant to the drug most often used to treat it. In turkeys, 58 percent were contaminated--and 84 percent of those birds carried the drug-resistant strain. The rates of contamination reported in the Minnesota study were twice those reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention six years ago.

So campylobacter joins E. coli and salmonella in the new domestic lexicon. Although it is less well-known to the public, campylobacter is a cause of foodborne intestinal infection that is well-known to physicians. Health officials estimate that it is responsible for 4 million cases a year in the U.S., and the infection kills 200 to 800 people annually. The infection has also been linked to Guillain-Barr syndrome, which causes severe nerve damage. Studies indicate that 20 to 40 percent of the 5,000 annual cases of Guillain-Barre follow a bout with campylobacter.

AT ISSUE:

Should agricultural use of antibiotics be restricted, even if it increases food costs?

Read what other readers say.

The greatest cause for concern in the medical community is the finding that campylobacter is growing more resistant to a group of antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones. These drugs are the most frequently used antibiotics to treat campylobacter infections in humans, but they have also been widely used around the world for a decade by poultry producers to assure the health of their flocks. In the U.S., fluoroquinolone was approved for poultry use in 1995 by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, which regulates the use of drugs in livestock.

Michael Osterholm, the epidemiologist who headed the Minnesota study, believes the FDA made a mistake. "Since that time, we have seen a dramatic increase in the frequency with which these chickens have developed campylobacter strains that are resistant to fluoroquinolones. That now translates to humans. This is a serious, serious public health issue in terms of losing this important drug."

The poultry industry does not want to lose the drug either. In a statement, the Washington, D.C.-based National Broiler Council, a trade group, argued that more studies should be done before a drug that has cut the cost of poultry production is withdrawn from agricultural use. "We think that, in fairness, science should be the guide here," says a spokesperson.

Both the FDA and the World Health Organization share the sentiment. The FDA, which is currently considering an application to expand animal uses of fluoroquinolones, says it is examining new data on drug resistance, including the Minnesota study. And WHO has established a global computer database to monitor outbreaks of drug-resistant infections.

A recent WHO meeting in Berlin ended on October 17 with a downbeat note. The 70 international participants issued an expression of concern that animal use of antibiotics could be contributing to a major public health crisis. Among its conclusions the statement said that "a decrease in use of antibiotics as growth promoters does not need to entail reduced productivity in animals and thereby economic losses to the food producer nor increased prices for consumer. Research on alternative methods to improve animal growth and feed efficiency is recommended." How about vaccines?