By REBECCA WALSH
At least 1000 pregnant New Zealand women suffer food poisoning each year, putting their unborn baby at risk of illness, premature birth or even death.
The figures, published in the New Zealand Dietetic Association journal, have prompted calls for doctors and midwives to ensure they include comprehensive food safety advice when discussing nutrition with women in early pregnancy.
New Zealand has high rates of food-borne illness. An estimated 119,000 cases each year cost the country $55 million.
A study by the Auckland Regional Public Health Service estimated that between 700 and 1100 pregnant women get food poisoning each year.
But the figures, based on the number of cases of food-borne illness such as campylobacter and salmonella in New Zealand between 1996 and 1999, and on the number of pregnant women, could be higher.
Dr Greg Simmons, Auckland medical officer of health and one of the study authors, said pregnant women were at increased risk of illness from food-borne infection because their immune system was compromised.
Those people most at risk are known as the Yopi group - the young, old, pregnant and immuno-compromised.
Dr Simmons said women who suffered food poisoning early in pregnancy were at greater risk of spontaneous miscarriage and potential harm to the foetus. Those in mid-late pregnancy were more likely to experience a premature delivery.
Two Australian studies of pregnant women with campylobacter found death rates among babies ranged from 33 per cent of six cases in one review to 80 per cent in a review of 20 cases.
Dr Simmons believed that while pregnancy was a time when people considered their nutrition, they often gave little thought to food safety.
He questioned how much attention GPs and midwives devoted to talking about food safety - in the 10 years he had delivered babies he could not remember giving women advice about what they should and should not eat.
Dr Simmons, along with the Dietetic Association, wanted doctors and midwives to incorporate more information about the "four Cs" - clean, cook, cover and chill - when discussing nutrition.
Karen Guilliland, chief executive of the College of Midwives, said food safety was one of many topics covered by midwives but there was a balance between providing sound information and practical ways women could keep safe, versus "scaring and making them unnecessarily anxious".
"If dieticians are calling for a renewed focus on it we are happy to take up that call and reinforce to midwives these are things women need to know."
Dietetic Association executive officer Carole Gibb said pregnant women should avoid high-risk foods such as pre-prepared salads, undercooked meat and unpasteurised dairy products.
A Food Safety Authority booklet on safe eating during pregnancy is available from public health units and lead maternity carers.
Sickness in the refrigerator
A survey of New Zealand refrigerators found a third operating above the recommended temperature range of between 1C and 5C, enabling the bacteria which cause food poisoning to thrive.
The Food Safety Authority survey found 16 of 53 fridges tested were operating at 6C, 26 had temperatures between 5C and 7C, and four were above 7C.
Almost three-quarters of the fridges had higher temperatures on the top shelf than on the bottom shelf.
The refrigerator testing, done by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, found 23 fridges had air temperatures in the ideal range.
Keeping the air temperature between 1C and 5C means perishable foods can be eaten safely after being stored for two to three days. Higher temperatures allow bacteria to grow and can cause food poisoning.
Compared to other developed countries, New Zealand has a high rate of food-borne illness - about 119,000 cases a year.
The Food Safety Authority, which is a member of New Zealand's Foodsafe Partnership, recommends cooling hot foods before putting them in the fridge to avoid raising the temperature of other stored foods.
It says raw meat should be kept at the bottom of the refrigerator to prevent juices dripping on to other foods and contaminating them.
Fridge thermometers are available at hardware and homeware stores.
Herald Feature: Health
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By REBECCA WALSH