Last September, two-year-old Kyle Allgood died of kidney failure after drinking a spinach smoothie made by his mother. Everyone wondered how spinach, the superhero of leafy greens, the legendary source of cartoon character Popeye’s strength, could make a healthy child so sick.

The death of the Idaho toddler turned out to be part of a widespread outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 (the most dangerous strain of the bacteria) linked to packaged fresh spinach in the US. Two other deaths and 102 hospitalisations, and an overall total of 199 cases in 26 states, were reported by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The source of contamination was eventually traced to a river and to cattle and wild pig faeces in California’s Salinas Valley. But no-one is quite sure exactly how or why the bacteria contaminated the spinach crop. Within months there were another two major E. coli outbreaks in the US.

Early this year, a serious cluster of cases in South Australia hospitalised a dozen people. The cause of that E. coli outbreak, however, remains a mystery.

If experts are unable to quickly and reliably isolate the sources of food contamination, should people around the world be worried about where the next problem will emerge?

New Zealanders are relatively lucky when it comes to E. coli infection from food: cases here are few compared with countries such as Australia and the US, and yet we have the highest reported rate of campylobacteriosis in the developed world. And no-one knows why.

Widespread infection

Campylobacteriosis is a severe food-borne illness caused by campylobacter bacteria. The bacteria are normally found in the gut of farm animals, pets and birds, which don’t show any signs of sickness.

The illness lasts about a week, but complications from the disease can lead to paralysis and death. Symptoms include muscle pain, stomach cramps, nausea and bloody diarrhoea.

Dr Roger Cook, principal adviser (microbiology) at the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA), says, “There are 15,000 cases a year – and they are just the reported ones. Estimates put it at more like 100,000 cases annually, and that’s far too many.”

According to Dr Cook, roughly 60% of cases can be attributed to raw chicken, but food authorities are still unsure as to why it hits us so hard. The NZFSA’s strategy for dealing with campylobacteriosis includes monitoring farms and implementing biosecurity programmes.

But like other food authorities around the world, the NZFSA is assessing the latest developments in food safety technology to see how relevant they might be for Kiwis. It’s a fact that New Zealanders already have the one of the most abundant, affordable and safest food supplies in the world. Unprecedented advances in technology are improving our ability to prevent, detect and contain food-borne illnesses.

Computerisation, automation and rapid analysis have driven changes in the food industry. Computers are used to control cooking times and temperatures, and sanitise equipment.

“We’ve had an extremely good processed food industry for decades”, says Lydia Buchtmann, spokesperson for Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). “There’s very little human handling in processed food.” 

But with the apparent rise in food-borne pathogens worldwide, consumers are now demanding higher standards still.

Says Dr Cook, “The awareness of food-borne illness, and the requirements by the consumer to have much stronger assurances about their food, are certainly on the increase.”

Says Buchtmann, “If foods are handled well [by industry and by the consumer], and if they are cooked properly, by following a few simple rules our food will be safe. It won’t stop every case of food poisoning, but it really will make a big difference.”

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