Saturday, February 9, 2008

That Campylobacter problem – it just doesn’t go away

It has been fascinating to watch the news reports, both here in New Zealand and overseas, over the last few weeks and see the different takes. The New Zealand Food Safety Authority announced on 15th January the introduction of a Code of Practice for the poultry industry. The code is intended to reduce the incidence of campylobacteriosis in New Zealand, which is the highest in the developed world. The code has received mixed reviews and the language used has at times been intemperate. The blame for much of this disease has been laid at the door of the poultry industry as suppliers of “New Zealand’s cheap and dirty food”. In a Radio NZ interview, Dr. Mike Baker claimed that when chicken is prepared in a kitchen, every surface in the kitchen will be covered with bacteria and the aprons of workers in restaurant kitchens will potentially be covered in a layer of Campylobacter.

When interviewed by the Taranaki Daily News, a Tegel spokesman said that the Company fully supported the new code. Sharon Wagener of NZFSA says that the code formalises a lot of what was already happening voluntarily in the industry. However, on the Green Party website their spokesman Sue Kedgley claimed that the code “fails to include some very simple measures to stem the tide of Campylobacter contamination of chicken meat being sold to New Zealanders”. Some of the points raised by Ms. Kedgley in relation to problems of mechanical handling and leaky packaging are not in dispute, but are already being addressed by the industry.

The Taranaki Medical Officer of Health, Richard Hoskins, noted that the Health Board has had interactions with Tegel (which of course is not the only chicken processor in the country) in efforts to reduce the incidence of the disease. He apparently expressed the view that the Board was "pretty impressed with the efforts they are going to".

Michael Brooks, the Executive Director of the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand, has also stated that based on figures collected by ESR, human campylobacteriosis case rates have been steadily declining since August 2006, in some months showing a drop of 30-35% over the corresponding previous year. Of course, this does not satisfy everyone; the incidence of campylobacteriosis tends to be somewhat variable from month to month and it will require proper statistical analysis over some years to demonstrate a true decrease.

The adversarial approach being taken by some of the interested parties is not, in my view, the best way forward. Nobody has the complete right answer; where has the still small voice of reason and collaboration gone? Wouldn’t it be better if the parties worked together, using scientifically demonstrable facts and not overheated opinion to put together the jigsaw puzzle and solve the problem?

The fact is that human infection by Campylobacter is a very complex problem and simply pointing the finger at the poultry industry will not solve it, no matter what codes of practice are imposed. Take just one point: sub-typing of Campylobacter, using molecular methods, can show the relatedness of various isolates from poultry and from humans. In some parts of the country, a single sub-type is found in up to 20% of human cases and in poultry. In other parts, the sub-typing shows that human cases do not share the same types as found in poultry. Nobody is claiming that poultry does not contribute significantly to campylobacteriosis in New Zealand, but the industry takes this seriously and is doing something about it, having issued its own Broiler Growing Biosecurity Manual in consultation with NZFSA in August 2007. This describes the minimum standards to be used in NZ broiler production systems, aiming at ensuring the products meet food safety and suitability requirements and consumer needs. Campylobacter is a commensal bacterium – it is found in poultry and some other animals and does not cause them to be ill, so getting rid of it is going to require considerable effort and some cost on the part of farmers and processors.

The code comes into force on the first of March 2008.

For more information on Campylobacter, click here

1 comment:

Karl Crawford said...

Interesting that nowhere in this debate is any discussion of poultry carcass rinsing processes used in many counties, and in more than 50% of US poultry plants.

These methods can virtually eliminate Campylobacter along with other pathogenic bacteria like Listeria and E Coli.

They are not the complete answer, and there is some discussion on whether the final product at the supermarket is any 'safer', but there is no doubt these methods are effective in the processing plant.

In the US, there is a USDA inspector on every processing line, who randomly takes birds for analysis. If the plant has three incidences of listeria, then it is shut down.

A number of years ago, I discussed one of these processes with Tegel (with a view to selling it to them), based on Tricalcium phosphate rinsing and was told that at 2.5c/bird additional cost it was too expensive.

Perhaps technology has moved on (it has been about five years since I was involved in this business) but no discussion on this?

Karl Crawford

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