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Questions and Answers on Salmonella and other food-borne diseases

Zoonoses cause diseases that lead to numerous sick days, needless deaths and large public health costs in the EU every year — like the ones caused by Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and toxin producing E. coli. In a press release issued by the European Commission, several common questions about food safety were addressed:

What impact do food-borne diseases have on overall public health?

About 400 000 human cases of zoonoses were reported across the 25 EU Member States in 2004. The EU report on zoonoses for 2004 records 119 human deaths from zoonoses. It is however estimated that the real number of cases and deaths is much higher, as not all cases are analysed and there is thought to be considerable underreporting of human cases.

 

How can food-borne zoonoses be limited or eradicated?

Zoonoses are notoriously difficult to control given that a number of the micro-organisms involved are ubiquitous and not easily completely eliminated from the food chain. Pathogen reduction in animals is a key part of preventing the spread of infection via food, while good hygiene practices and good manufacturing practices in food production and preparation are also important.

 

What has been done at EU level to try to reduce zoonoses?

A whole body of legislation has been laid down at EU level to try to reduce zoonoses and food-borne diseases.

In 2003, framework legislation for the control of zoonoses in the EU was adopted. Directive 2003/99/EC on monitoring zoonotic agents, aims to improve knowledge of the sources and trends of these pathogens, to support microbiological risk assessments and to serve as a basis to adopt measures to manage risks.

Regulation 2160/2003 to reduce the occurrence of zoonotic agents, prioritising salmonella, focuses mainly on reduction of zoonotic agents in animals at the farm, often a starting point for contamination of animal products. There is also EU legislation specifically covering zoonotic animal diseases and monitoring measures in place for zoonotic diseases in animals.

 

How high is the risk of catching a food-borne disease in the EU compared to the rest of the world?

The likelihood of becoming infected with a food-borne illness in the EU is generally much lower than in many other parts of the world, largely thanks to the measures in place to monitor and control zoonoses. The EU has one of the most effective systems to monitor zoonoses and therefore has a good awareness of the high prevalence of zoonoses. While it is not possible to eradicate zoonoses from nature, it is possible to take measures to prevent or reduce the incidence of food-borne diseases caused by zoonoses. The EU has one of the strictest bodies of legislation on food safety in the world. The same stringent provisions apply to foodstuffs produced in the EU and those imported from third countries.

How prevalent is Salmonella in the EU?

Salmonella is probably the most significant zoonosis in the EU. Over 192 000 human cases were reported in 2004, and it is likely that many more went unreported. The prevalence of Salmonella in poultry and other animals varies widely from one Member State to the next.

At EU level, what has been done / is being done to reduce Salmonella in meat?

The Commission intends to set down targets for the reduction of Salmonella in broiler and turkey flocks, and in herds of fattening and breeding pigs over the next few years. The reduction of Salmonella in live animals for food production will help to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella in meat.

National authorities are required to verify that food operators comply with the legislation. Minced meat, meat preparations and certain meat products cannot be put on the market, or must be withdrawn if already on the market, if Salmonella is detected in any of the tested samples at production level or on the market.

From 2011, fresh poultry meat may not be placed on the market unless there is an absence of salmonella in 25g tested.

At EU level, what has been done/ is being done to reduce Salmonella in eggs?

The Regulation adopted by the Commission in July 2006 sets targets for the reduction of Salmonella in laying hens. The first target deadline is set for 2008, although Member States will have to submit national control programmes on salmonella reduction in laying hens to the Commission by early 2007. Such targets are already set for breeding hens.

In addition to these measures, the Regulation on microbiological criteria for foodstuffs also sets Salmonella criteria for egg products which guarantee that food containing egg products is safe. From 2010 onwards, eggs from Salmonella-infected flocks will be banned completely from being sold as table eggs in the EU, and will have to undergo a sterilisation procedure if they are to be used for processing into egg products.

How will it be ensured that these targets are respected?

Firstly, Member States will be required to carry out sampling and monitoring of flocks, and report the results to the Commission. They must draw up national control programmes and send them to the Commission within 6 months of the Regulation entering into force. If the Commission approves the national programmes, EU funding will be provided to help with the monitoring and control measures to reduce salmonella.

What can concretely be done to reduce Salmonella levels in flocks?

At farm level, among the measures that can be taken to reduce Salmonella in flocks are checks on feed and water to ensure that they are not contaminated with Salmonella and basic on-farm hygiene practices.

Vaccination can play an important role, as was confirmed in the EFSA opinion which stated that the vaccination of poultry can be an additional measure to increase the resistance of birds against Salmonella exposure and decrease the shedding. The Regulation on requirements for the use of specific control methods for the control of Salmonella in poultry, to be adopted by the Commission in the coming weeks, stipulates that from 2008, all Member States with Salmonella Enteritidis  prevalence above 10% must vaccinate laying hen flocks.

Why does the EU not advocate the use of antimicrobials (e.g. antibiotics) to control salmonella in live flocks?

An EFSA Opinion recommended that the use of antimicrobials should be discouraged due to public health risks associated with development, selection and spread of antimicrobial resistance. It is the general policy of the Commission to reduce the use of antimicrobials for non medicinal purposes in animals for the same reason.

In addition, if poultry is treated by antibiotics, detection of the Salmonella is difficult so an infection may be hidden but not eliminated from the flock.
In the EFSA report on the prevalence of Salmonella in laying hens, it is noted that giving the poultry antibiotics within 2 weeks prior to testing did not seem to have any impact on the level of Salmonella in poultry.

Can Member States apply national criteria for the placing on the market poultry products?

If a Member State wants to apply a national salmonella criterion which could pose a barrier to other Member States’ meat, it must first notify and get approval from the Commission and other Member States, giving scientific justification for the measure. The same rules must apply to meat in the Member State as to other Member States’ import i.e. if a Member State sets strict salmonella criteria for meat imports, these criteria must also apply to its own meat. However, the other Member States have to agree on such an approach to apply national criteria.

Can a Member State withdraw contaminated food from the market?

Under Regulation 178/2002 ("the General Food Law"), a Member State can withdraw food from the market which is considered unsafe. Such measures must be scientifically justified.

What can consumers do the prevent Salmonella infections?

While this point can’t really be pushed too hard, it can be noted that there is a certain level of retailer/consumer responsibility when it comes to preventing food-borne diseases such as Salmonella. If meat or eggs with a small level of Salmonella are kept refrigerated and in hygienic conditions, and are properly cooked, then it is likely the Salmonella will not develop to levels sufficient to affect the health.