Additional regulatory action is needed to control Campylobacter in New Zealand, according to researchers.

Scientists proposed a national inquiry to identify an effective response to Campylobacter in chicken meat, which they said was the largest food safety problem in the country.

Responsibility for managing food safety also needs to shift to an independent regulator, potentially as part of a revitalized public health agency, according to the accepted manuscript in the journal Epidemiology and Infection.

Estimated burden
In New Zealand, contaminated fresh chicken meat is the largest single source of campylobacteriosis. It caused an estimated 539,000 cases, 5,480 hospitalizations, 284 deaths, and economic costs of U.S. $380 million during the 10 years from 2009 to 2018.

Another recent study, published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, found poultry meat was a major source of Campylobacter infection in New Zealand.

Campylobacteriosis rates halved in 2008 compared to the previous five years following introduction of regulatory limits on contamination levels in fresh chicken meat. However, incidence remains high by global standards at a rate more than seven times that of the U.S. in 2018.

In the 11 years following interventions in 2006 and 2007, the reporting rate declined but hospitalizations for severe disease rose. This pattern is of concern and suggests no major decline in campylobacteriosis in the past decade and potentially that the epidemic is increasing based on the rise in hospitalization rates, according to the study.

Proposed solutions
As an island nation that produces almost all its own poultry, New Zealand is well placed to take action to better manage the problem, said researchers.

They said the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) should give a high priority to controlling Campylobacter linked to contaminated fresh chicken meat based on its huge human health and economic impact.

The MPI should lower Campylobacter levels permitted on fresh poultry and FSANZ should require consumer information labelling of poultry. Consumers could also be shifted to safer food sources such as restricting sales to only pre-cooked and frozen chicken products, said scientists.

Researchers said slowly evolving epidemics can get less attention than they deserve.

“In general, a common source foodborne outbreak affecting more than a few dozen people typically results in an investigation and strong response if a source is identified. However, the country’s well-characterized common source campylobacteriosis epidemic is not receiving a vigorous response despite causing more human cases than all of New Zealand’s reported foodborne disease outbreaks combined,” they reported.

The scientists also said regulating food producers is more effective than educating consumers and can be cost effective.

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