Outbreaks of the salmonella bacteria, found in foodstuffs of animal origin, can lead to hefty costs for the public and private sector but, a resistant micro-organism, it adapts easily to extreme environmental conditions, actively growing under a wide range of temperatures.
The UK Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency (HPA) announced this week that following recent investigations since 2002 into more than 80 outbreaks of Salmonella enteritidis, with 2000 confirmed and an estimated 6000 potential cases, they have decided to step up action against the common bacteria, many of which have been linked to Spanish eggs used in the catering trade.
Salmonella food poisoning is an unpleasant illness and, although most people make a full recovery, it can be serious for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, babies or people in poor health.
The UK is still recovering from wide outbreaks of Salmonella enteritidis in the 1980s that knocked the local egg industry however figures now show that the number of cases in England and Wales has decreased significantly, from 16,047 cases in 1998 to 9757 cases in 2003 mainly due to industry control programmes, including the vaccination of chicken flocks.
Despite reports this week from the UK food watchdog that salmonella is on the up, UK egg producers can find some relief because the FSA suggests 'that the use by the catering trade of Spanish eggs is a major source of this infection.' According to the British Egg Information Service total production in the UK is around 8,800 tonnes per annum with a current value in the region of £16.3 million.
Dr Judith Hilton, head of microbiological safety at the FSA, commented: "Salmonella in UK eggs has been steadily decreasing but there is still a particular problem with some Spanish eggs. Since January 2004, these eggs have had to be marked 'ES' so both caterers and consumers know that they will need to take extra care if they use these eggs, or they may choose to use UK eggs, marked 'UK'."
The UK's food body said it would pursue the European Commission to push for further action to tackle the problem.
Advice from the FSA to the food industry includes ensuring that the eggs are commercially heat-treated and caterers should use pasteurised egg in raw or lightly cooked products. "All products made with Spanish eggs should be thoroughly cooked," warned the government agency.
While the egg industry is benefiting from decent sales growth, food makers have been hit by a rise in egg yolk prices linked to the outbreak of avian flu earlier this year in Asia that severely impacted the global poultry industry. In the last 12 months, food firms have seen a 20-30 per cent rise in liquid egg prices. Yolk prices rose from about £1,700/tonne last summer to £2,250 in the last quarter of 2003 and are around £1,850 today, although stability is in sight with prices starting to level out.