Lax poultry standards putting consumers at 'unnecessary' risk

Consumers can cut their campylobacter risk by avoiding fresh poultry products.

Consumers can cut their campylobacter risk by avoiding fresh poultry products.

Leading public health experts are calling for action on what they say is an unacceptably high rate of a potentially lethal food poisoning bug in chicken in New Zealand. 

In a damning blog, professors Michael Baker and Nick Wilson, from Otago University's public health department, say New Zealand is not doing enough to protect consumers from the threat of campylobacter. 

They want lower allowable limits of campylobacter on chicken, warning labels on fresh poultry, reporting of brands' contamination rates and for consumers to "vote with their feet" and opt for frozen products instead.

Campylobacter is the leading cause of food poisoning in New Zealand. In severe cases it can cause paralysis and death.

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The researchers said the recently-detected antibiotic-resistant strain of campylobacter showed how vulnerable New Zealand's poultry stocks were.

The new antibiotic-resistant strain is not resistant to the main types of antibiotic used to treat campylobacter in humans, but Baker said that only meant New Zealand had dodged a bullet this time.

"In the current episode we don't know where this [resistant strain] came from or how it rapidly spread through the poultry industry. It is therefore reasonable to assume this could happen again. And next time the [resistant] organisms could have far more serious implications for patient treatment."

The pair said New Zealand was known as the campylobacter capital of the world, with rates 10 times higher than that of the United States and twice those of Australia.

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Both the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), which is responsible for food safety, and the Poultry Industry Association (PIANZ), point to a reduction by half in campylobacter cases after tighter rules were introduced eight years ago. 

But Baker said there had been little improvement since then and rates were still unacceptable high, given that the cause of a large proportion of the cases was easily identifiable.

To be able to uphold its reputation as a safe food exporter, something needed to be done, he and Wilson said.

"New Zealand's reputation as a trusted exporter of safe food took a battering following the botulism and milk powder scare in August 2013. We need to demonstrate our low tolerance of food contaminated with real microbial hazards, as is clearly the situation with campylobacter in fresh chicken."

MPI said it had no immediate plans to change the rules but PIANZ executive director Michael Brooks said discussions were under way about a potentially lower campylobacter limit. He said it was too soon to say what that would be.

 The University of Otago researchers want New Zealand to follow Britain's lead, with information about contamination levels in fresh poultry published by manufacturers and in major retail outlets. They also want warning labels on poultry.

But PIANZ said that was unnecessary.

Brooks said 80 per cent of British cases of campylobacter came from chicken, while Massey University studies showed chicken was responsible between 35-40 per cent of cases in New Zealand.  

"It is also important to note that human campylobacter case numbers are going up in the UK and going down in NZ. This would appear to demonstrate that  the UK reporting model does not seem to be working, whereas in New Zealand, the initiatives the industry is constantly undertaking has New Zealand  in 2015 with the lowest levels of reported campylobacter cases from chicken in years."

Baker and Wilson suggested another option was for consumers to stop buying fresh poultry but Brooks said consumers had shown a strong preference for buying fresh poultry.

"Cooking chicken kills campylobacter and as an industry, we are continually reminding consumers of careful handling of raw chicken to prevent cross contamination."

MPI's deputy director general regulation and assurance Scott Gallacher said industry and government had a focused strategy to reduce the occurrence of foodborne campylobacteriosis in New Zealand.

"All chicken is tested and monitored on a regular basis to ensure it meets New Zealand's microbiological food safety standards before being sold to consumers."

If any test results do not meet standards, MPI can restrict access to the product or close the plant in question.

"We consider that the current robust food safety system of checks and balances in place works to protect consumers against food safety hazards like campylobacter and, at this point and time, we are not considering further measures, however if there is a risk to public health we will take immediate actions to protect consumers."

 - Stuff

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