Sickened by chicken?

Last reviewed: January 2010
Michele Lundell
Case study
Michele Lundell, 53, of Apple Valley, Minn., became ill from campylobacter.
Photograph by Joe Treleven

Within a few days of eating salad at a Minnesota restaurant in February 2009, Michele Lundell, a supervisor for a company that makes plastic tubing, experienced diarrhea, fever, and headache. "I kept getting sicker and sicker," she recalled. A test confirmed campylobacter. After her doctor prescribed antibiotics, Lundell said, she felt better for about a day, but then "all the same symptoms came back." She said she was hospitalized for six days. A Minnesota Department of Health investigation found that 10 people who had eaten at the restaurant were stricken with campylobacter and that the lettuce was most likely contaminated by raw or undercooked chicken. Lundell said she hasn't fully recovered. "It's hard to believe," she said, "that a person goes out to eat and gets so sick that it changes your life."

Science lesson: A little bit can make you sick

As few as 15 salmonella or 400 campylobacter organisms can make you ill. The salmonella found in raw poultry, meats, seafood, and produce can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, and headache, sometimes followed by arthritis symptoms. Campylobacter is found mainly in raw chicken. It wasn't recognized as a human pathogen until 1977, but it is now one of the most common causes of bacterial foodborne illness. The usual symptoms are diarrhea, often with fever, abdominal pain, nausea, headache, and muscle pain. Rarer are complications such as arthritis, meningitis, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a potentially fatal neurological condition.