Govt must act on unsafe chicken, Greens urge

NZ's biggest poultry companies stonewall questions on infected chicken, reports Susan Edmunds.

Bacteria spread quickly among chicken flocks.
123RF

Bacteria spread quickly among chicken flocks.

The bosses of four Kiwi chicken-producing companies in the spotlight over an investigation into bacterial infection of poultry, have refused to come forward to reassure the public their supply is safe.

Senior executives at the major North Island suppliers, Inghams, Tegel, Brinks and Turk's chose to stay silent this week after new research showed an antibiotic-restistant strain of food poisoning bug, campylobacter, had spread to humans.

The damning study by Nigel French of Massey University and microbiologist Debbie Williamson, had found three of the four leading poultry suppliers in the North Island had tested positive for the strain.

A fourth was still waiting for test results. The companies involved were not named.

But the findings mean attention has fallen on North Island's leading pountry suppliers which produce many thousands of birds for the table each year.

Yet Turk's, Tegel and Brinks had no comment to make and said the matter was in the hands of the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand (PIANZ).

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Association spokesman, Michael Brooks said the industry worked with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) on campylobacter levels.  "The success of those meetings and steps that have been implemented has seen a 60 per cent drop in human campylobacter cases since 2006 and the contribution of poultry to human cases has also dropped markedly."

He said the industry was committed to ensuring the decline continued.

The Association said there was an agreement for it to respond on behalf of all parties, as it always does, on an industry issue.

A spokeswoman for Inghams said the company was waiting for word from the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and the Ministry of Health before it introduced any new measures to combat the bacteria.

The failure of chicken suppliers to speak publicly was "surprising"  said Consumer NZ champion Jessica Wilson.

"It's not a new issue, so we would have thought they would be prepared to talk. Antibiotics resistance is a growing issue worldwide."

In the wake of the study, other experts said consumers were being unnecessarily exposed to risk because restrictions on the poultry industry were not tight enough.

Campylobacter occurs naturally in more than 50 per cent of chickens, but is the leading cause of food poisoning in New Zealand.

The country has some of the highest rates in the world, due to a heavy reliance on fresh rather than frozen chicken products.

The antibiotic strain was first found in 2014 .

The spokeswoman for Inghams defended the company's position: "The current finding does not suggest the consumer is exposed ot heightened risk," she said.

"Of course Inghams will take whatever measures that are found necessary and helpful to minimise exposure to this new strain of campylobacter."

Researcher Nigel French said it was surprising how fast the antibiotic-resistant strain of the bug had spread.

About 12 people per 100,000 are hospitalised per year due to campylobacter and in severe cases it can be fatal.

The resistance means two antibiotics – fluroquinolene and tetracylcines – would fail in treating the infection. But eurythromycin, which is most commonly used to treat the infections would be effective..

Researchers said it was possible the antibiotic resistance arose because the chickens were treated with antibiotics while alive.

Labour Party food safety spokesman Damien O'Connor said it was potentially a huge issue, which he was monitoring.

He said. "There is growing awareness internationally around the use of antibiotics.  Any industry not taking those concerns on board has its head in the sand."

Green party food spokesman Steffan Browning said the government needed to investigate the links between herbicides and antibiotic resistance.

He pointed to research, such as that by Jack Heinemann, of Canterbury University, which showed a link between herbicides and antibiotic resistance in some bacteria.

Consumers needed to be cautious, he said.  "I think they should be looking at their food and saying 'how close to nature is this?' For the meat eaters, is it being fed antibiotics, is it being fed herbicide and pesticide-laced food? With chicken, it invariably is."

Browning said:  "MPI must quickly begin residue testing the imported feeds for herbicide and other pesticide residues, and check to see if the stock feeds contain bugs and antibiotics, or whether the bugs are being developed in the chickens and intensive poultry sheds.

"The Government needs to consider the effect herbicide residues have on our food and the foods we use in animal agriculture to seriously to protect the health of New Zealanders, who are now being exposed to an antibiotic resistant strain of campylobacter in everyday food."

Professor Michael Baker, of Otago University, said the discovery of the antibiotic-resistant strain was alarming.

"Resistance as it becomes more widespread poses a problem for treatment."

He said New  Zealand needed to do more to get campylobacter out of the food supply because, antibiotic-resistant or not, it was making people sick.

"There is pressure to say this is a cheap, popular food and we are doing the best we can, but at a certain point you have to say we can't accept it any more."

"If it was a new food it would be struck off the shelves instantly, there would be a recall."

Producers have to adhere to microbiological limits for chicken – if test results breach food safety standards MPI can act to restrict access of the product to the market or close the plant in question.

But Baker said the limits should be tighter.  "At the moment there can be 6000 viable campylobacter on a chicken carcass and every one could make you sick. New Zealand could greatly reduce the burden by reducing the allowable limit. If manufacturers can't meet new targets they could sell frozen or cooked chicken. It wouldn't stop poultry production in its tracks."

He said there were outrageously high rates of campylobacter but "remarkable complacency" about it.

MPI said it was in the process of reviewing its antimicrobial resistance programme and was working with the Ministry of Health to study the new strain of campylobacter.

(Additional reporting by Richard Meadows)

 - Stuff

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