Campylobacter spp. are a major contaminant of poultry. Eating undercooked chicken and handling raw poultry have been identified as risk factors for campylobacteriosis in humans. Previous studies have found Campylobacter spp. on 90% of poultry carcasses. In the present study, pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) was used to assess the genetic diversity of strains on retail poultry carcasses. PFGE patterns of isolates from campylobacteriosis cases were compared to those from the poultry isolates. Over a 1-year study period (March 2000 through February 2001), whole fresh young chickens (n = 72) were obtained from three retail outlets in an urban community in the south-central United States. Campylobacter spp. were isolated from 82% of these carcasses. Strains (n = 70) were defined on the basis of their PFGE pattern. Sixty-seven percent of the carcasses from which Campylobacter spp. were isolated were contaminated with more than one PFGE-distinguishable strain. During the 1-year study period, most of the PFGE patterns (59%) were limited to isolates obtained from a single carcass. Forty-one percent of the PFGE-distinguishable strains were recovered from more than one carcass. Ninety-seven percent of the carcasses contaminated with the same strain were purchased at the same time from the same store. To examine the degree of genetic stability, four strains were followed in vitro over an estimated 1,000 doublings. The PFGE pattern of one of these isolates underwent minor changes during in vitro growth. The data indicate extensive variability in the PFGE patterns of Campylobacter spp. isolated from humans and from poultry carcasses. In spite of difficulties caused by such diversity and the fact that some carcasses are contaminated with more than one strain, the pattern variation provides a useful method for linking a particular strain to its source.

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