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Market News

 July 31, 2018
All fresh chicken should be sold with a warning, researcher says

 New Zealand needs to introduce tobacco-style warning labels on fresh chicken products, to inform shoppers of the risk they are taking when they buy them, a public health researcher says.

This country has one of the world's highest rates of campylobacter, a type of food poisoning that can lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome.

About 30,000 New Zealanders fall sick with it each year, and 500 are hospitalised.

Half of cases come from chicken.

Professor Michael Baker of Otago University said campylobacter had become a serious public health concern, and New Zealand's rates were unacceptably high.

New Zealand tolerated too much campylobacter in the food chain, he said. "We know how to turn the tap off but we're not doing it."

He said better warnings were needed on fresh chicken products to make it clear almost all fresh chicken with the skin still on would be infected with campylobacter.

"It's the most hazardous thing you can take into your kitchen."

Consumer NZ head of research Jessica Wilson said its most recent test of raw chicken found 65 per cent of samples tested positive.

Her organisation has called for regular testing of chicken meat sold in shops, and she said Consumer would support warnings on packaging.

An antibiotic resistant strain of campylobacter was discovered in 2014. It was detected in human cases in Manawatū, Auckland and Wellington. The researchers noted how quickly the strain appeared in all the North Island poultry suppliers.

"This is one of our weakest links in terms of antimicrobial resistance in the New Zealand population," Baker said.

He said, while people were "justifiably shocked" at the outbreak, it had not translated into action.

The next outbreak could be more serious or even fatal, he said.

Michael Brooks, executive director of the Poultry Industry Association, said no other strains of campylobacter had been found to be resistant to antibiotics.

The antibiotics involved were not commonly used in the poultry industry, he said.

"The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) did an investigation and the industry hired Stephen Page, an international expert from Australia and a consultant to the Australian Government and the NZ Veterinary Association amongst others to look at the resistance.

"Both found that NZ industry practice cannot have been the cause of this resistance. The major antibiotic used by humans for campylobacter is erythromycin (not used by the NZ poultry industry) and the testing showed no resistance to that."

The industry does use an antibiotic called zinc bacitracin, regularly distributed in chicken feed, to treat an intestinal disease.

Brooks said this was done pre-emptively because once the disease was detected it was too late to treat.

Campylobacter thrived in warm, moist environments, he said.

"We know that New Zealand plants are good in terms of processing practice by comparison to our Australian counterparts... Every New Zealand plant must meet standards set by MPI and the results are provided to MPI weekly.

"They are also supplied to the industry which benchmarks every plant and all companies know what every other plant's standards are. If the MPI standards are not met then a series of steps must be undertaken and if after 10 weeks standards not met MPI can close the plant down."

New Zealand had the toughest regulatory standards in the world, he said.

Wilson said there was more widespread concern about the rising use of antibiotics in food product.

A Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) report from October shows 64,400kg of antibiotics were sold in 2014 for use in agriculture and veterinary medicine, a rise of 7400kg since 2011.

Most antibiotics are used in the pig, poultry and dairy industries.

Brooks said antibiotics were only given to poultry under veterinary prescription. The industry had a long-standing policy of not giving antibiotics on a routine basis if they were of critical or high importance to humans, he said.

"Recent international policy announcements by companies such as McDonalds of not using highly or critical importance antibiotics catches up with New Zealand industry practice."