The many reasons for New Zealand's high gastric illness rate

by Jennifer Bowden / 28 October, 2016
New Zealand has a bad history of cases of campylobacteriosis, our most common notifiable disease.
Cleaned up: poultry is no longer the campylobacter culprit it used to be. Photo/Getty Images
Cleaned up: poultry is no longer the campylobacter culprit it used to be. Photo/Getty Images


Havelock North’s recent gastric illness outbreak was a sharp reminder of the importance of a safe and sanitary food and water supply. Thousands of residents succumbed to campylobacteriosis – a nasty gastro­intestinal illness that causes muscle pain, headaches, fever, diarrhoea and abdominal pain – from the town’s contaminated water.

New Zealand has a bad history of cases of campylobacteriosis, our most common notifiable disease. Rates peaked in 2003, at 396 reported cases per 100,000 population, earning the country the title of “campylobacter capital of the world”. Poultry-related exposure was estimated to cause more than half of the cases at that time, with rates noticeably declining from 2007 after the introduction of both regulatory and voluntary measures for the poultry industry.

Although the 2015 rate was a markedly better 135 cases per 100,000, it is still 1.5-3 times as high as the rates in Australia (94 per 100,000 in 2013), England and Wales. As the Havelock North crisis highlights, the illness can be caused by untreated drinking water, as well as through contact with recreational water, farm animals, faecal matter or infected people or by the consumption of contaminated food from retail premises.

Responsibility for making sure the food we buy and eat is safe falls on the entire food industry. However, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is in charge of the food-safety system to ensure everyone plays their part in preventing food-borne illnesses.

Salmonella is a common cause of food poisoning. Photo/Getty Images
Salmonella is a common cause of food poisoning. Photo/Getty Images


On the frontline are MPI’s food-safety officers, including Amanda Swafford and Tui Shadbolt, who enforce the Food Act 2014. Their job is to investigate non-compliance and complaints regarding food safety and suitability, whether it’s a case of foreign objects found in a food product or following up on a food-borne illness outbreak. “Our primary objective is to protect public health,” says Swafford.

When lots of people contract a food-borne illness or report an illness associated with a food premises, the local district health board will investigate. If warranted, matters will be referred to MPI for further digging.

A recent case involved several members of a family group who were diagnosed with campylobacteriosis after a function at a venue, with a pie implicated as a possible cause. Shadbolt’s inquiries revealed that the venue manager was away during food preparations for the event and a staff member had prepared the pie. That person had decided not to precook the chicken filling, she says.

The next day, another staff member was on duty and thought she was merely required to reheat the pie, not fully cook it, so when it was served “it wasn’t heated to the right temperature”. It was a case of a simple miscommunication leading to several sick customers.

For most food-business owners, the realisation that their error caused customers to fall ill is devastating, says Shadbolt. “Food professionals aren’t in the business to make people sick.”

Your dining companions can also make you sick. Noroviruses, a group of highly contagious and hardy viruses that cause stomach upsets, can readily spread from one person to another. Norovirus outbreaks are one of the most common issues food-safety officers deal with, says Shadbolt.

“Often people come to an event sick. Because it’s a family function, they don’t want to miss out.” When fellow guests subsequently fall ill with gastrointestinal symptoms, complaints about the food venue are often lodged, only for public-health investigators to discover an infectious guest had sparked the outbreak.

“We then give advice to food premises about how to decontaminate after there’s been illness introduced by a guest,” says Shadbolt.

The recommendation for anyone with a stomach upset is to stay home and avoid preparing food for other people. In that way we can all play a part in helping to drive down our food-borne illness statistics.

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