07 October 2005
By KAMALA HAYMAN
School pupils eating raw offal in Fear Factor-style contests are contributing to soaring rates of food poisoning in Christchurch.
More than 80 cases of campylobacter — a disease causing severe abdominal pain and diarrhoea — have been reported to health authorities in the past week, and 226 cases in the past month. This is double the monthly average for Canterbury.
The disease is most commonly associated with undercooked chicken but can also be contracted from beef and close contact with animals.
Canterbury medical officer of health Mel Brieseman said campylobacter rates usually rose in spring, particularly among rural children during lambing.
“They go out in the field and play with the lambs, or Dad brings a few sick ones inside to nurse.”
Brieseman said rates were higher this spring than usual and he believed a contributing factor was school contests based on television’s Fear Factor.
The TV show challenges contestants to stunts described as either “pulse-racing or gross”, such as driving a sports car under a speeding truck or eating some “disgusting animal part”.
Brieseman said at least two Christchurch schools held such contests, triggering cases of campylobacter.
“I don’t know what else they did, but one of the things they have done is getting them to eat raw offal or entrails.”
He was not certain what the pupils ate but knew it was “the raw innards of animals” and almost certainly included beef liver.
“There have been two cases of campylobacter in children who have indulged in this sort of thing.”
Brieseman would not name the schools implicated.
“If you identify some, you don’t know how many others are involved and we don’t want to lay blame in one area if the fault is wider.”
He said letters were sent to the schools identified advising against such contests.
Canterbury-West Coast Secondary Principals’ Association chairwoman Linda Tame had never heard of such contests. Nor had Cashmere High principal Dave Turnbull.
“It sounds utterly gross and appalling and something in schools we should never condone,” said Turnbull. “It is silly but also potentially dangerous.”
School Trustees’ Association Canterbury chairman Rab McDowell said schools were expected to provide a safe environment.
“A competition as such wouldn’t be a problem, but if there are parts in the competition that are jeopardising health, the board would be expecting the principal to take some action against it.”
Grant McMillan, the Ministry of Education’s southern schools regional manager, said a joint letter from the ministry and Crown Public Health was being sent out to all Canterbury schools next term reminding them they were “responsible for students’ health in those sorts of activities”.
He said the ministry shared Brieseman’s concerns.
“We believe it’s important that schools use a variety of teaching techniques and strategies as a way of engaging students. These should always be based on minimum risk to students’ and staff’s health and well-being.”