Ballyclare mum Claire McKee tells Stephanie Bell how falling victim to the potentially deadly food bug campylobacter left her seriously ill in hospital for five days.
Mum-of-one Claire McKee was more horrified than most at the recent news that thousands of us are unwittingly putting our families at risk of a potentially deadly food poisoning by washing chickens before we eat them.
Claire had the misfortune a year ago of suffering the severe effects of campylobacter – the most common cause of food poisoning in Northern Ireland.
A new survey launched to mark the recent Food Safety Week showed that over a third of people here always wash chickens before cooking – a practice that can spread campylobacter.
The Food Standards Agency and safefood survey also revealed that more than 80% of us have never heard of campylobacter.
Public Health Agency figures for Northern Ireland show that campylobacter poisoning has been on the increase here since 2008.
Last year an estimated 1,355 people were affected – that's up from 1,211 cases in 2012.
In fact, there is so much concern about its easy spread in our kitchens that the Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland, Dr Michael McBride, has written to GPs to highlight the potentially serious effects of campylobacter food poisoning and the key symptoms to look out for.
The Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland is also launching a major campaign targeting people in the food industry to try and curb its spread.
Claire, who is a civil servant, has worked in the Health Protection Branch of the Department of Health and so was aware of the threat of campylobacter but never dreamt that she would suffer its ill effects.
The 29-year-old from Ballyclare, who is mum to Josh (9), spent a week in hospital being treated for excruciating abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea.
She lost a stone in weight and it took six weeks in total for her to make a full recovery.
She was so ill that she had to rely on family and friends to help out with Josh.
Claire doesn't know how she was poisoned but had attended a barbecue and eaten takeaway food in the 48 hours before she took ill.
"Because of working in health protection I was always aware of the need to be careful about preparing food and I know it wasn't something that I cooked myself because I hadn't done so for two days beforehand," she says.
"It started with terrible pains in my stomach which got so bad that after about 12 hours I couldn't bear them any longer and I rang the out-of-hours doctor who advised me to go to Casualty."
Tests were taken and examined in the hospital lab and two days later it was confirmed that Claire had picked up the common food bacterial bug.
It took another three days for medical staff to rid her of the poison and some weeks before she was back on her feet.
"I was vomiting a lot and had to be put on a drip and stayed in hospital for five days," she says.
"I was very weak for around a fortnight and it was six weeks before I felt totally normal. I felt exhausted and weak and lost so much weight in a short period of time."
Even though she had heard of campylobacter, like many of us Claire didn't know until this most recent survey was published, that it could be spread by washing a chicken.
"I never washed a chicken before I cooked it but I didn't know either that it could cause food poisoning.
"What happened to me has definitely made me even more aware of the importance of food safety," she says.
"Food poisoning is something you don't want to experience, the symptoms are far more severe than I could ever have imagined. I think it is important that people really are aware of need for careful food preparation.
"Having campylobacter was a totally horrendous experience, I would never have realised that food poisoning could be so severe. It has made me more careful especially if I am at a barbecue, I will look at the food and make sure it is well cooked before I eat it.
"I think it's great that this was highlighted during Food Safety Week as it's not nice, it's not something you would ever want to get."
The UK-wide research shows that while 90% of people in Northern Ireland are familiar with the names of other bacteria like salmonella and E.coli, only 19% had ever heard of campylobacter, which is commonly found in raw chicken.
To raise awareness, the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland (FSA in NI) and the all-Ireland body safefood are urging people to stop washing raw chicken to reduce the risk of contracting campylobacter, which can lead to a potentially dangerous form of food poisoning.
Dr Michael McBride, who is supporting the call, says: "New figures also show that over a third of people here always wash chicken before cooking it – a practice that can spread campylobacter bacteria onto hands, work surfaces, clothing and cooking equipment through the splashing of water droplets.
"Campylobacter is a spiral-shaped bacterium that is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. Those most at risk are children under five and older people, because their immune systems are weaker.
"The FSA believes that around four in five of the cases of this type of poisoning recorded locally come from contaminated poultry.
"The resulting illness can cause abdominal pain, as well as severe diarrhoea and vomiting. In certain cases, it can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, reactive arthritis and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a serious condition of the nervous system.
At its worst, in very rare cases, it can kill."
Maria Jennings, director of the Food Standards Agency in NI describes campylobacter as "a serious issue". "You can't see it, smell it or even taste it on food, but if it affects you, you really won't forget it," she warns.
"Not only can it cause severe illness and death, but it affects the Northern Ireland economy as a result of sickness absence and there is an added burden on the NHS because of the more serious cases that require hospital treatment.
"Telling the public about the risks and how to avoid them is just one part of our plan to tackle campylobacter."
The research found that people do tend to follow recommended practice when handling poultry, such as washing hands after touching raw chicken and making sure it is thoroughly cooked, but the current concern is the revelation that people washing raw chicken is also common.
"That's why we're calling on people to stop washing raw chicken and raising awareness of the risks of contracting campylobacter as a result of cross-contamination," she says.
"We are leading a campaign that brings together the whole food chain, which includes working with farmers and producers to reduce rates of campylobacter in flocks of broiler chickens and ensuring that slaughterhouses and processors are taking steps to minimise the levels of contamination in birds.
"We are committed to acting on campylobacter and providing safer food for the nation."
The simple rules we all should follow
- The UK-wide survey, commissioned by the FSA, found that levels of awareness of campylobacter are well below that of other forms of food poisoning
- The most cited reasons people gave for washing chicken were the removal of dirt (40%), getting rid of germs (37%) or because a parent or relative did/does so (31%)
- Dr Linda Gordon, safefood's chief specialist in food science, said: "To avoid campylobacter poisoning, we recommend covering raw chicken and storing it at the bottom of the fridge so juices cannot drip on to other foods and contaminate them.
"Don't wash raw chicken. This is the key message. Thorough cooking kills any bacteria present in chicken, whereas washing it can spread germs around the kitchen by splashing water droplets.
"Make sure you also wash the utensils, chopping boards and surfaces used to prepare raw chicken – and wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling. Make sure chicken is steaming hot all the way through before you eat it –with no pink meat and check that the juices run clear."
- For more information on the FSA's campylobacter campaign, and for guidance on the safest way to handle chicken, visit www.food.gov.uk/chicken or www.safefood.eu