Campylobacter: The great chicken clean up

by Ruth Laugesen / 21 November, 2009

How a public outcry forced the poultry industry to smarten up its act.

It was 2006 and public health researcher Dr Michael Baker was assessing data for a paper on campylobacter. As he did so, he became increasingly irritated.

For years, experts like him had been writing about New Zealand's staggeringly high rates of campylobacter infections. And nothing had changed. In fact, for this infection, which can cause severe stomach discomfort, diarrhoea, headaches, sweats, nausea, hospitalisation and sometimes even death, rates were only getting worse. Greens co-leader Rod Donald died in 2005 from a heart infection that was a complication from a campylobacter infection.

Baker penned an incendiary press release for his research paper, in which he pinned much of the blame for the "epidemic" on a dirty chicken industry.

New Zealand had the highest reported rates of campylobacter in the world, with more than 15,500 people testing positive in the year to May 2006. In a year, that would mean about 1000 hospitalisations and, based on overseas research, translate into more than 100,000 unwell with campylobacter. The rise in cases was closely correlated with a rise in fresh chicken consumption. Poultry is the most popular type of meat consumed by New Zealanders, who on average eat 36.5kg of it in a year.

"Chicken has become the cheap and dirty food of New Zealand," declared Baker. His co-author, Dr Nick Wilson, complained that processing plants were giving consumers raw chicken literally "dripping" with campylobacter. The pair, both associate professors at Otago University and neither of them chicken-eaters, called for a ban on fresh chicken sales until the problem was solved.

Their strong language triggered a media firestorm from July 2006. The poultry industry went into damage control, complaining it wasn't clear chicken was responsible for the huge rise in infection rates, and saying home cooks should brush up on kitchen hygiene.

Fast-forward three years. Cases of campylobacter infection have plummeted by 50-60% and the poultry industry is claiming credit. Notified human cases in the year to September were just a shade over 7000.

Millions have been spent by the industry on new factory equipment and numerous changes have been made to processing. Raw chicken on sale is now much cleaner.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA), criticised in 2006 for inaction, is being lauded as a world leader in beating campylobacter. Recently the agency was asked to head an international committee on combating campylobacter in broiler chickens.

How did the chicken industry clean up its act? In Foxton, two hours north of Wellington, Ron Turk is the energetic owner of a family firm that every day turns 15,000 white clucking chickens into drumsticks, breasts and sausages. At the beginning of the line, it's smelly death, cut throats and intestines that periodically drape themselves on the machinery; by the end of the line it's all cool air, whirring machinery and the faint smell of bleach.

Campylobacter is endemic in chickens' guts, so a plant like this is potentially a carnival of cross-contamination. But this, claims Turk, is now the cleanest factory in the country for campylobacter. Australian maintenance engineers enjoy their service trips. "After working all day their overalls are still clean - you do that in Australia, you'll be black after half an hour."

The industry line is that they were already working on the campylobacter problem before Baker's outburst, but at Turk's they say the public fuss took them by surprise. "We didn't think we had a problem, and the consumers obviously didn't think we had a problem. There was no focus on campylobacter."

Many in the industry were aggrieved by the demand they do something, as New Zealand already had similar in-factory campylobacter contamination rates to overseas plants.

Processing here didn't appear to be unusually dirty, but still, by some unknown quirk, infection in the community was many times higher than the rest of the world.

But public pressure forced the fiercely competitive poultry industry, made up of four main players, to begin sharing information on how they could cut contamination levels in their plants. They started visiting one another's plants for the first time, to look at best practice. The outcry also strengthened the NZFSA's ability to impose controls. In early 2007, it began measuring campylobacter levels for chickens coming out of factories.

Crunch time came at a meeting between the NZFSA and the industry in 2007, when the authority told the industry it would be forced to meet a performance target for contamination levels from April 2008. There had previously been no regulation.

The standard is that 87% of the birds should have fewer than 6000 campylobacter bacteria per carcass.

The result has been much cleaner chickens overall. At the start of 2007, 57% of a sample of chickens coming out of factories had measurable levels of campylobacter. Two years later, that has fallen to 31% with the average number of bugs per bird falling to 257, less than a quarter of the bacteria present in 2007.

The flip side, though, of the new national standard is there are still up to 13% of birds going out with more than 6000 bacteria each. Theoretically, a bird could legally go on sale with up to 750,000 bacteria on it before sanctions were invoked, although the industry says that level of contamination has not been found yet.

At Turk's, the smallest of the big four (the others are Tegel, Ingham and Brinks), driving down average campylobacter levels has become something of a contest.

Turk and his technical expert, Mike Williamson, proudly show the Listener better rinsing systems and extra water jets to improve washing of the chicken carcasses.

"At first we started looking for silver bullets. It didn't work out that way. It worked out we were able to reduce campy across the board with 10 or 20 interventions," says Williamson.

When the NZFSA started monitoring in 2007, in a few chicken farms, all of the birds coming in had measurable levels of campylobacter. Plants have tried to cut infection in the birds coming into the factories, through taking greater care to avoid cross-contamination between sheds via equipment and workers' clothing.

In the processing plant itself, the focus has been to wash away the bug and avoid spreading it between carcasses. At Turk's the most important change has been to massively increase the amount of chlorinated water used to rinse and chill the birds after slaughtering - up from 1500 litres a minute to more than 4000 litres a minute. The factory did not want to increase the amount of chlorine, so the pH content of the water was changed to improve the chlorine's effectiveness.

Other chicken processors, says Williamson, without naming names, have taken a different approach. "They're not shy of using some of the harsher chemicals," he says.

According to Michael Brooks of the Poultry Industry Organisation, the only other chemical used by other plants for rinsing is acidified sodium chloride, or acidified brine. He said the brine rapidly breaks down to become salt, with no discernible effect on the flavour of the bird.

Baker is pleased with the decrease in reported infections since 2006. "There has been very convincing evidence of a decline. We are now at the top end of the international range, rather than being way above." His colleague, Nick Wilson, isn't as impressed, given those remaining 13% of birds with potentially high campylobacter levels. "It seems frankly absurd that such contaminated food is allowed anywhere near the human food chain. Consumers would have to apply bleach all over their kitchen surfaces to really lower that risk. That's unrealistic."

Back in Foxton, the men at the factory are proud of what they have achieved, but still angry at the man who helped bring it all to a head.

"Michael Baker is an idiot. You're never going to satisfy someone like Michael Baker. I think Michael Baker owes New Zealand an apology. He comes down hard on things with the wrong reasons, and says things that hurt industry far more than they deserve," says Turk.

But doesn't the progress the industry has made suggest Baker was right all along? "We obviously did have a problem. We didn't understand the problem, I suppose. I suppose you can smack our hand a little bit. We could have done something earlier, maybe, if we knew it was such a problem."

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