Chicken is making New Zealanders sick and spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria, say researchers who are calling for safety labels on raw poultry products.
A study out of University of Otago, Wellington, labelled the country as having one of the highest rates, an estimated 30,000 illnesses and about 600 hospitalisations each year, of campylobacteriosis in the world.
The bacterial infection most commonly causes "gastro" and in some cases, a paralysing illness called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
There is 60 to 90 per cent of fresh chicken on our shelves with high levels of the contaminating bacteria, which the majority of consumers are unaware about, the report says.
Infectious diseases researcher Michael Baker says campylobacter was New Zealand’s "number one food safety problem".
He says the study had identified gaps in the country’s possible prevention of the bacterial infection through raw chicken, which was also linked to spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
"And yet there is no requirement to include safety information on fresh poultry packaged in supermarkets or butchers.
"Where labels are present the font is often tiny and barely readable. No labels even mentioned the word ’campylobacter’."
A 2016 Consumer NZ study found that more than half of supermarket chickens carried campylobacter, but the poultry association said then the test was much stricter than official requirements.
Of the 40 chickens tested, 65 per cent (26 chickens) tested positive for the bacterial infection.
One of the Otago study’s authors, Philip Allan, says New Zealand had one of the highest rates of campylobacteriosis in the world and at least half of cases could be attributed to contaminated chicken.
"Our study showed that many consumers are not aware of the risks, and that retailers should do much more to inform shoppers."
The study surveyed 401 Wellington shoppers outside 12 supermarkets and six butcher shops, and assessed information on raw chicken products in those stores.
Of the people, over 16, surveyed 89 per cent says they bought, prepared or cooked chicken but a quarter knew about the possibility of contamination.
Most were aware they needed to thoroughly cook chicken and use separate utensils to prepare raw chicken meat but the report says many were unaware rinsing fresh chicken under a tap could spread infection or knew freezing chicken reduced campylobacter contamination.
Over half the shoppers wanted large, bright coloured warning label with safety information and preparation information.
"Safety and correct preparation information on chicken labels, was rated ’very necessary’ or ’essential’ by the majority of respondents," the report says.
"Supermarket chicken labels scored poorly for the quality of their food safety information with an average of 1.7/5 for content and 1.8/5 for display."
Butchers’ labels were the worst offenders for a lack of chicken preparation information, the report added.
The report recommended the Ministry for Primary Industries order lower contamination levels, a measure implemented in 2007 which halved campylobacteriosis rates in New Zealand.
HOW IS CAMPYLOBACTER INFECTION SPREAD?
Eating contaminated food is the most frequent cause of this infection. Campylobacter is commonly found in raw or undercooked poultry meat.
Occasionally, other sources of infection include: infected individuals - particularly infants; household pets - especially puppies and kittens; domestic stock; raw milk; contaminated water.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Diarrhoea, which may sometimes be bloody