Campylobacter is a leading cause of human bacterial foodborne disease and has been epidemiologically linked to poultry and poultry products. What is the role of transport coops for spreading Campylobacter contamination in broiler chickens?

Campylobacter can be isolated from many broiler flocks during grow-out and on the majority of processed broiler carcasses exiting the chill tank. However, a few flocks do remain negative for Campylobacter on the farm but may become contaminated during catching, transporting and processing. In a typical commercial operation, broilers on the farm are caught, mechanically or by hand, and placed into coops for transport. Filled coops are taken to the processing plant, emptied and put back into service. Soiled transport coops may or may not be cleaned and sanitized between uses.

Some integrators wash coops between uses and some do not. Washing methods currently in use may not be adequate. In fact, wetting fecal contamination without complete removal and sanitization is likely to worsen the situation by essentially creating a rich growth medium for the bacteria present. Complete removal of all fecal matter during washing requires an abundance of water and time.

Does Campylobacter contamination occur in transport coops?   

Proving transport coops are the source of contamination is often difficult because commercial processing facilities may have other resident populations of Campylobacter present to contaminate broiler carcasses. The objective of this study was to determine if contaminated fecal matter in a transport coop from Campylobacter-positive broilers could lead to contamination of the carcasses of previously negative broilers.

To test the hypothesis, broilers were obtained from commercial grow-out houses that had been previously identified as Campylobacter positive or negative by culturing feces. The broilers from a Campylobacter-positive house were placed into a new (never-before-used) five-level commercial transport coop and held for eight hours. When broilers from the positive house were removed and processed, broilers from the Campylobacter-negative house were placed into the same coop.

Broilers from the negative house remained in the coop exposed to the feces of the Campylobacter-positive broilers for up to six hours before being removed and processed. Carcasses from each group were examined for the presence and number of Campylobacter.


Poultry contaminated by Campylobacter in transport coops

More than 50 percent of the defeathered carcasses from previously negative broilers had detectable levels of Campylobacter. These data indicate that feces from a Campylobacter-positive flock can indeed cause contamination of the outer surfaces of a Campylobacter-negative flock that is placed later into the same uncleaned transport coop.

This study represented a worst-case scenario whereby the coops were not cleaned in any way and were immediately reused following removal of the Campylobacter-positive birds. More research is needed to determine the best means to minimize or eliminate transport coop contamination. Several research projects addressing this source of contamination will be discussed in a future article.