Saturday, August 11, 2007

For the second time of asking: "Should I eat the chicken?"

Over the last eight months we have heard a lot in New Zealand about the dangers of Campylobacter and poultry. Some of it has been well-informed and some has been blatant scaremongering that served only to confuse and frighten the consumers. The poultry industry was accused of producing New Zealand’s cheap and dirty food. Ad hoc solutions were advanced that would in all probability increase the cost of poultry in the market place without giving any guarantee that the rate of Campylobacter infection in the population would decrease.

The still small voice of reason is now being heard and concrete steps are being taken to understand and reduce the problem, which is not unique to New Zealand*. The New Zealand Food Safety Authority is studying possible control measures. Researchers at Massey University are examining isolates from the environment and from patients, building a comprehensive database on Campylobacter strains that can be used in epidemiological studies. The first version of the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand Broiler Growing Biosecurity Manual has now been released. This is a comprehensive manual of approved procedures aimed at controlling infection and spread of Campylobacter in poultry flocks. When fully implemented, the procedures should greatly reduce the incidence of Campylobacter in poultry in the market place. The production of the manual is a creditable response of the PIANZ to the concerns expressed by scientists, politicians and the general public.

So does that mean that campylobacteriosis in New Zealand is under control? I don’t think so. I believe that it is highly unlikely that Campylobacter can be eradicated in poultry, at least in the short term. There are also other sources of the bacteria in our food supply and in the environment. Only a couple of weeks ago, a number of mountain bikers taking part in a contest became ill with campylobacteriosis. No food source could be identified as the source; infected surface water and mud, which had covered the competitors as they splashed through the puddles, was blamed as the source.

Distributors, wholesalers and retailers, together with the consumers themselves, must take some responsibility for the safety of food. Even though campylobacteriosis has been shown to be linked with consumption of undercooked barbecued chicken, I am not convinced that New Zealand’s high incidence of the disease can be attributed entirely to this cause. There are many routes of infection for the consumer. Leaking packages in display cabinets can contaminate other food purchases, the hands of customers and the handles of supermarket trolleys. Cross contamination in the restaurant or domestic kitchen via utensils and chopping boards may result in salads or other uncooked dishes becoming infected. The dose of bacteria required to initiate the illness in humans may be only a few dozen cells. This means that commercial and domestic food handlers must be properly educated in practical food hygiene and food safety. We can all contribute to the safety of our food.

Should we eat the chicken? You bet!

* Work conducted in Hong Kong by my team showed that between 50 and 60% of fresh chicken was contaminated with Campylobacter. This dropped to about 30% if the poultry had been frozen. These rates of contamination are entirely consistent with figures reported for other countries.