Dramatic drop in risks from chicken

By Geoff Cumming

Consumers can feel less nervous about putting chicken on the table after a dramatic reduction in food-poisoning rates.

Notifications of campylobacter cases have fallen by more than a third in the past year, suggesting poultry producers are finally limiting the spread of the bacteria on farms and in processing plants.

The downturn is accelerating - notifications in the first four months of this year are down by more than half.

Contaminated chicken is the biggest single source of campylobacter illness, which causes vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, headaches and muscle pain.

New Zealand's reported rates of the illness are higher than those of comparable countries, and chicken is blamed for about 50 per cent of cases.

Up to 1000 people are hospitalised each year because of campylobacter which, in extreme cases, can kill - Green Party co-leader Rod Donald's death in November 2005 was caused by inflammation of the heart muscle, a rare complication.

Commercial freezing generally kills the bacteria. Thorough cooking also kills them.

Campylobacter lives in the gut of poultry and other animals, but can be transferred to raw meat during processing.

An Environmental Science and Research study in 2006 found it on a quarter of fresh chicken packs sold in supermarkets.

New Zealanders eat 34kg of chicken a year on average - more than half a kilo a week - and sales are worth nearly $800 million a year.

The industry began to address the problem a year ago, after the Food Safety Authority made campylobacter its major foodborne illness priority and devised a risk management strategy with the industry.

In September, the authority put processors on notice to keep contamination levels below set levels or face sanctions, including possible plant closure.

Executive director Andrew McKenzie is wary of proclaiming the problem under control. While results are vastly improved, he says, standards still lag at "one or two" of the country's dozen poultry processors.

Contamination in free-range flocks was also a concern.

* Year to March 30 2007 - 16,280
* Year to March 30 2008 - 10,591

- NZ Herald

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