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Editorial: First priority not taking a No 2

Saturday January 11, 2020 Written by Published in Editorials
Stallholders at Punanga Nui market will be among the hundreds and hundreds of food handlers required to give stool samples in order to renew their food licences. Stallholders at Punanga Nui market will be among the hundreds and hundreds of food handlers required to give stool samples in order to renew their food licences.

OPINION: The notorious editor of The Sun tabloid newspaper once took a phone call from the UK Prime Minister John Major, who was worried about what criticism he might face over his handling of a financial crisis

“Well John, let me put it this way,” replied the editor, Kelvin MacKenzie. “I've got a large bucket of sh** lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head.”

That’s not our style of journalism in Cook Islands; neither is it the style of our leaders to grovel cap in hand to the media for approval.

But if ever policy-makers have gone asking for a bucket of the proverbial, it’s our public health officials this week.

Their new policy demanding food handlers pay a $120 fee for the privilege of depositing a stool sample with the health laboratory rather beggars belief and has elicited mirth around the Pacific.

* Government to review poop tax

To be clear, Cook Islands News supports scientifically-informed, evidence-based, public health measures. In these editorials we have championed water treatment. We have wholeheartedly supported immunisation. And we support good food hygiene controls on restaurants, takeaway outlets and market stalls.

But we are aware of no evidence that the systematic sampling of stools will in any significant way limit the risk to locals and tourists of salmonella, giardia and other nasties.

A report by Australia’s health ministry says that unless there is specific reason to believe a particular food worker is spreading disease, “stool samples should not be routinely collected from asymptomatic food handlers during outbreak investigations as the results do not provide a useful basis for a public health response.”

Canadian authorities go even further, saying routine stool screening may actually be misleading as the snapshot provided on one day tells inspectors nothing about what the same food worker might be carrying the next day.

As an example, in 1989 at a Jordan university hospital, 183 people who ate the mashed potato in the canteen became ill from Salmonella enteridis. The infection was spread by one worker who was carrying the pathogen and had prepared the potatoes – but he had tested negative in a routine stool sample three months earlier.

Responding to the front page story in Cook Islands News yesterday, health minister Rose Toki-Brown has congratulated her public health officials for their determination to fight food-borne diseases – but also said the new stool samples policy will be reviewed.

She is right on both counts. Because demanding food handlers give a faeces sample is a waste of money, it gives customers a misplaced sense of security – and it threatens to undermine the credibility of Cook Islands’ otherwise excellent public health controls.

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