New Zealand campylobacter fight shows early promise

By George Reynolds

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: New zealand, Meat, Food safety, Campylobacter

New Zealand's fight against campylobacter is beginning to show
signs of promise, after years of problems, the national regulator
said last week.

The prevalence of the bacteria was highest in the developed world and subject to condemnation by scientists, although New Zealand's Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) maintained the cause of the problem was not fully understood. This year, the implementation of the early stages of a risk strategy has seen the poultry industry begin to take control of the problem that blighted the country for years. One certainty is that campylobacter occurs naturally in the gut bacteria of many birds, and so poultry meat often becomes contaminated during slaughter and processing. If the meat not cooked properly, the bacteria can cause severe human illness and even death. Andrew McKenzie, Executive director of NZSFA, said the regulator's campylobacter risk management strategy, which is being developed in partnership with the poultry industry, is addressing this area of certainty with the goal of reducing the contamination found on chicken. "We have said all along that there is no 'silver bullet' answer and our research, as well as international experience, is bearing this out,"​ he said. In the 12 months to May 2006, there were 416 cases of human illness per 100,000 people, based on 15,553 reports, according to NZSFA statistics. Late last year a Joint World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO/WHO) Codex Alimentarius Commission group was set up to look into the global problem of campylobacter. New Zealand was asked to lead, in cooperation with Sweden, the development of a new international 'Code of Hygienic Practice for Salmonella and Campylobacter in Young Chickens (Broilers) and Chicken Meat'. About 30 countries and international organisations are part of a voluntary working group, which recently met for the first time in Sweden, to decide how the code should develop. McKenzie said that work is being done on possible effective interventions at all steps along the farm-to-fork food chain and that NZFSA's approach is in line with internationally efforts to reduce campylobacter in poultry, as confirmed during the first meeting of the International working group. This approach aims reduce the bacteria as early as possible in the food chain, as well to make further reductions at later points also. "A data collection process for monitoring of the prevalence of campylobacter in flocks and on carcasses is in place and is giving us a robust base to measure the effectiveness of the real-world interventions that are made,"​ said McKenzie. "Without this, it's impossible to determine what works effectively in a commercial environment."​ The formulation of an international industry best-practice on farms and in processing is coming along well, according to McKenzie. He said that the codes of practice that describe appropriate control measures within farms and processing facilities have been drafted and are currently being reviewed and finalised. "This work has confirmed that there is no single intervention that will completely address campylobacter and that multiple control measures need to be applied throughout the food chain to minimise the levels of this bacteria in raw poultry,"​ he said. Last year, a study by the Univesity of Otago said that the country should ban the sale of fresh chicken, which accounts for about three quarters of all chicken meat sold in New Zealand, to cut the number of people hospitalised through illness. The NZFSA has commissioned a study, conducted by Environmental Science & Research (ESR) into the effectiveness of domestic freezing. It found that freezing reduces the numbers of campylobacter, but does not eliminate the problem, which is also dependent of the duration poultry remains frozen. Studies have also revealed an apparent difference between two campylobacter strains, which is currently being investigated. Other analysis is being conducted on reported cases in Manawatu to find the precise cause of the illness. Scientists are trying to determine whether each case is like to have been caused by food, drinking water, animal contact or another factor. In light of preliminary findings, the work is being extended to see if confirm these factors apply across New Zealand. Cross contamination from raw poultry to other foods during processing by the retail sector has also been investigated. Improvements could be made in retail practices, which the NZFSA considered "generally pretty good". Better separation, such as physical barriers, distance, time or use of dedicated equipment of areas used for processing of poultry and areas used for other foods should be implemented, it said. The NZFSA and the Retail Meats Association are discussing the best way to improve retail practices. Evaluating packaging also forms part of the wider effort to understand and control the bacteria. Questions, such as does decontamination of external surfaces of packages make a difference, and what sort of handling requirements need to be in place during packaging, are currently being considered. "All these questions have been asked and studies are in place to get the answers,"​ he said. "There's no point making changes if the change doesn't solve the problem, and we certainly won't be thanked if it doesn't work - but adds cost for the consumer,"​ McKenzie said.

Related topics: Policy, Food safety, Oceania

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