Managing the foodborne risk of Campylobacter

Campylobacter is the most common cause of foodborne illness in New Zealand. Find out about its effects and how it is spread.

Quick facts

MPI has:

  • helped halve foodborne Campylobacter illness since 2006
  • put controls in place for food processors to limit Campylobacter levels
  • developed a new strategy and action plan for 2020 to 2025
  • set a goal to reduce foodborne cases by a further 20% by 2025
  • co-led production of international guidelines for controlling Campylobacter in poultry
  • produced international guidance for verifying Campylobacter control in poultry processing
  • in 2020, published a major case-control study of Campylobacter illness that indicates that 84% of foodborne Campylobacter cases are associated with the chicken meat pathway.

About Campylobacter

Campylobacter is a bacterium that causes gastrointestinal disease (campylobacteriosis) in people when it lodges in the walls of their intestine. There are 2 main species that cause human illness in New Zealand:

  • Campylobacter jejuni – which causes most foodborne illness
  • Campylobacter coli.

In 2006, New Zealand had one of the highest reported rates of campylobacteriosis worldwide with 379 cases per 100,000 people. Since then, our management strategy has helped to reduce the disease to 126.1 cases per 100,000 people, as of 2019.

Campylobacter causes, illness and control – fact sheet [PDF, 240 KB]

How we get Campylobacter

The most common and well-known foodborne source of Campylobacter is from poultry meat. We can also get the bacteria from:

  • drinking raw (unpasteurised) milk
  • drinking contaminated water
  • contact with farm animals
  • water recreational activities.

Find out more

Human campylobacteriosis

Human campylobacteriosis is a notifiable disease in New Zealand. That means any cases must be reported to public health authorities.

People infected with Campylobacter are likely to get sick within 2 to 5 days, although sometimes it can take up to 10 days. Symptoms include:

  • muscle pain
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • headaches and fever
  • diarrhoea (can be bloody).

Most people feel ill for about a week. The bacteria are shed from the gut (to faeces) for up to 3 weeks and can survive on hands and moist surfaces.

Occasionally, Campylobacter jejuni infection is followed by chronic (long-term) illness such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS).

Campylobacter risk management strategy

Our strategy and work plan to manage the risk of foodborne Campylobacter has significantly contributed to reducing the level of foodborne campylobacteriosis in New Zealand.

Development of the strategy

Foodborne campylobacteriosis increased up to 2006. Contributing factors were the increased consumption of poultry meat over the previous decade and the shift to chilled rather than frozen meat as a consumer choice.

This led to MPI's (then the New Zealand Food Safety Authority's) first Campylobacter risk management strategy that focused on reducing contamination of chicken meat.

Since then, MPI has continuously worked in partnership with industry to reduce foodborne risks from Campylobacter

What the strategies have achieved

Since 2006, our strategies have reduced foodborne Campylobacter illness in New Zealand by over 50%. Our research and control measures have helped to achieve this.

Graph showing foodborne campylobacteriosis cases per 100,000 people between 2004 (when there were 160 cases per 100,000 people) and 2012 (when there were about 80 cases per 100,000 people).
Foodborne campylobacteriosis has decreased in New Zealand since MPI started targeting it in 2007.
Graph showing foodborne campylobacteriosis cases per 100,000 people between 2012 (when there were 90 cases per 100,000 people) and 2018 (when there were about 75 cases per 100,000 people).
Estimated incidence of foodborne campylobacteriosis between 2012 and 2018.

Information helps control Campylobacter

To prioritise our work on Campylobacter, we need to understand the importance of different:

  • sources of Campylobacter
  • the way people get infected. 

Our extensive research on the poultry, meat, and milk food chain, helps us understand the different sources and pathways of human infection.

Setting of a regulatory limit for chilled poultry carcasses

In 2008, MPI introduced the Campylobacter performance target (CPT) – which measured Campylobacter levels in processed chicken – to check how effective our control measures were at reducing levels. 

We continue to use Campylobacter sampling under the National Microbiological Database (NMD) to make sure processors are producing food within safe limits. 

Our current strategy and work

New Zealand Food Safety is aiming to reduce human foodborne campylobacteriosis in New Zealand by 20% by 2025, and this goal is incorporated in the Campylobacter Action Plan for 2020-2021.

Setting of this goal to reduce foodborne campylobacteriosis has been informed by a major study commissioned by New Zealand Food Safety that found that more than 80% of human foodborne cases are likely due to consumption of poultry meat, and this proportion is even greater in urban populations.

The Campylobacter Action Plan primarily focuses on the poultry food chain. It incorporates a risk-based, farm to plate chain approach to identification, selection, and implementation of new control measures that will significantly reduce the foodborne campylobacteriosis burden in New Zealand. The Action Plan initially focuses on:

  • improving controls (biosecurity) at farm level, and;
  • improving hygiene during primary processing, and re-evaluating the regulatory target for Campylobacter that determines the allowable limit of Campylobacter contamination on chilled chicken carcasses, and;
  • enhancing consumer education.

We will also continue to investigate other potential food sources such as raw drinking milk and red meat from ruminants.

Read about the 2020-2021 Action Plan and the Campylobacter case-control study:

Read about the current strategy and its associated work programme:

International influence 

International food safety standards are coordinated through an organisation called Codex Alimenarius Commission. New Zealand and Sweden co-led Codex work to develop the international Guidelines for control of Campylobacter and Salmonella in chicken meat.

In 2014, MPI produced guidance for best hygienic practice in poultry processing. This was published internationally for use and adaptation by other countries.

Find out more

Who to contact

If you have questions about MPI's Campylobacter research or our risk management strategy, email info@mpi.govt.nz 

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