Egg safety legislation gives industry cause for concern

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Egg, Chicken, Salmonella, Foodborne illness

The FDA has proposed an obligatory on-farm Salmonella control check
in order to reduce the risk of Salmonella illnesses caused by
infected eggs.

But while the move has been welcomed by the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) as long overdue, some within the US egg production industry are worried that the threat of disease is being exaggerated.

As the American Egg Board points out, less than one quarter of one per cent of all foodborne illness can be linked to eggs - and no-one wants a repeat of what happened in the UK in the late 1980s.

The public hysteria over egg safety then still casts a shadow over the industry. In 1988, the then UK minister for health Edwina Currie notoriously told the British public that 50 per cent of eggs contained Salmonella. The announcement cost Currie her job, and devastated the egg industry. Newell estimates that consumption halved as a result, and is still battling to recover.

"Consumption has been increasing slightly,"​ said Robert Newell, marketing manager for major UK egg producer Deans Foods. "We estimate that average consumption is now 1.86 per person per week, not taking into account egg usage in other products. But we are nowhere near where we were 20 years ago."

Nonetheless, pressure groups such as FACT believe that egg-producing plants have been the missing link in reducing the threat of Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) poisoning. Existing voluntary on-farm control programmes, they believe, have been shown to decrease the number of illnesses, but only little more than half participate.

The new plan therefore requires egg farms to conduct an environmental test of each flock, followed by a series of egg tests if SE is found. If there are continued positive results, the eggs could not be sold to consumers as raw shell eggs.

"This is a critical component of the agreement that is key to reducing the number of Salmonella related illnesses,"​ said FACT executive director Richard Wood. "Environmental testing on egg farms is necessary because the SE bacteria can pass from infected chickens into the egg before the shell is formed."

The proposal includes a new provision that exempts smaller egg farms with less than 3,000 hens. FACT says that it accepts this exemption since SE is primarily found on large egg farms. However, the pressure group believes that continued surveillance and tracebacks of SE outbreaks is necessary to determine if small farms should also be included in the plan.

"Today's proposal is consistent with the agreement of four years ago and when fully implemented should reduce the number of Salmonella illnesses in the US,"​ said Wood.

Nonetheless, the egg industry is concerned about public perceptions of egg safety. "The chance of encountering an egg contaminated with SE remains very small,"​ said Hilary Shallo Thesmar, director of the egg safety centre. "The possibility of becoming ill from SE can be eliminated with proper storage and cooking."

Since 1995, the number of illnesses from SE in the US declined 52 per cent , from an average of 3.88 illnesses per 100,000 people to an average of 1.85 illnesses per 100,000 people in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Salmonella Surveillance System.

Numerous procedures have been implemented, such as the rule requiring eggs to be refrigerated during distribution and storage at retail stores. That regulation went into effect in June of 2001.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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