Chicken processing rules under microscope over bacteria concerns

The Government is reviewing what a public health expert calls disgraceful levels of a dangerous bacteria in chicken.

Nearly a third of carcasses examined as part of the Ministry of Primary Industries' testing regime in the first half of last year were contaminated by campylobacter, the most common cause of food-borne illness in New Zealand, documents released under the Official Information Act reveal.

That is down from almost half of those tested in 2007, when new regulations were introduced to control the bug. But Otago University Public Health professor Michael Baker said the contamination levels were unacceptable.

"The industry has always argued that, 'well, the consumer's got to be responsible and cook it properly', but most people don't realise that raw chicken is about the most hazardous thing you can bring into your kitchen," he told the Herald on Sunday.

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"Most foods have bacteria on them, that's just a fact of life. But there are some pathogens that we can't cope with and campylobacter is one of them."

Health ministry figures showed at least 6,837 people suffered from the illness in 2013. It also results in several deaths most years.

Former Green Party co-leader Rod Donald died in November 2005 of a heart infection after a bout of campylobacter. The source of the food poisoning was never proven.

Ministry for Primary Industries' production and processing manager Sharon Wagener confirmed the department was reviewing chicken processing regulations to see what improvements could be made.

Wagener pointed out that the bacteria were easily killed by correct cooking so people had nothing to worry about if they cooked the meat properly.

"We're not putting the onus totally on the consumer, we're working with the producers to try to get [campylobacter levels] as low as possible," she said.

Wagener said campylobacter could also be transmitted through raw milk, contact with animals and even recreational water use.

Baker said it was disgraceful that campylobacter was still able to cause such mayhem. The main issue was cross-contamination, for which there were multiple opportunities from slaughter to the dinner table.

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"Every week there are thousands of people making mistakes and there will be dozens of cases," he said.

Although it was impossible to eliminate campylobacter from chicken, there needed to be far lower limits on the number of contaminated chickens and the levels of contamination, Baker said.

"One reason that chicken is the most widely consumed meat in New Zealand now is because it's cheap. And one reason for that is we're cutting corners in its production."

Symptoms caused by campylobacter include abdominal pain, fever and diarrhoea.