Reducing salmonella in European egg-laying hens: EU targets now set

EU - In the European Union (EU), Salmonella enterica serotypes Enteritidis and Typhimurium are the salmonella types most frequently associated with human illness.
calendar icon 11 August 2006
clock icon 5 minute read

A recent study, conducted on commercial large-scale egg-laying hen holdings with at least 1000 laying hens (Gallus gallus) in the 25 EU countries and Norway by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), found a range of salmonella levels in hens in these countries of between 0% and 79% [1,2]. The results also showed that samples taken on 20% of all large-scale laying hen holdings in the EU tested positive for S. Enteritidis and/or S. Typhimurium. A study across European countries has shown a high linear correlation between salmonella in egg-laying hens and human illness [3].

Salmonella targets set

Two pieces of European legislation aimed at reducing and controlling the prevalence of salmonella in poultry and eggs across the EU have recently been adopted [4,5,6]. The first new piece of legislation sets targets for the reduction of salmonella in commercial laying flocks, which should in turn lead to less salmonella contamination of eggs.

Every member state will have to reduce the number of laying hens infected with salmonella by a specific minimum percentage each year, with bigger reduction targets for member states with higher levels of salmonella. The ultimate target is to reduce salmonella levels to 2% or lower. By setting incremental percentage reductions, the aim is to ensure particularly rapid progress in those member states with a higher incidence of salmonella in laying hens.

These reduction targets have been endorsed by member states. Similar targets have already been set at EU level for breeding hens, and plans for separate targets to reduce salmonella in broiler hens, turkeys and certain types of pigs in the coming years are being brought forward.

The following annual percentage reduction targets are set for salmonella in egg-laying hens:

  • 10% reduction if the prevalence of salmonella in the preceding year was below 10%
  • 20% if the prevalence of salmonella in the preceding year was 10-19%
  • 30% if the prevalence of salmonella in the preceding year was 20-39%
  • 40% if the prevalence of salmonella in the preceding year was over 40%

The legislation also sets out requirements for sampling and testing for salmonella in laying hens, as well as the procedures for reporting results, in order to ensure that progress on reaching the set targets can be properly monitored. The legislation applies from 1 August 2006 and the first target deadline is set for 2008. National authorities are required to submit plans for control programmes to the Commission for approval and funding by early 2007.

Methods outlined for reducing salmonella

The second piece of legislation sets out the rules for certain control measures used to reduce salmonella in poultry, notably vaccines and antimicrobials. From 1 January 2008, all member states with a salmonella prevalence in commercial egg-laying hens of above 10% will have to vaccinate their laying hens against salmonella, in order to reduce spread of disease and contamination of eggs. The vaccinations used must be authorised at EU level, and must be distinguishable from the field bacteria during laboratory testing (that is, the animal serology must be able to distinguish between vaccination and infection).

National authorities may exempt a holding from this vaccination requirement if satisfactory preventive measures are being applied, or if there has been no incidence of salmonella on the holding in the previous 12 months. The EFSA recommends discouraging the use of antimicrobials for salmonella control in livestock and poultry, because of the public health risks associated with development, selection and spread of antimicrobial resistance.

Treating farm birds with antibiotics also makes detection of salmonella difficult, and may lead to infections in flocks going undetected. Therefore, the legislation states that antimicrobials should not be used as part of national salmonella control programmes except in a few exceptional circumstances.

EU trade ban foreseen for salmonella-infected eggs

On the basis of the EFSA study, a proposal for trade restrictions is also being urgently considered. Under the legislation for control of zoonoses [7], it is foreseen that eggs from salmonella-infected flocks will be banned from being sold as table eggs in the EU from 2010 onwards, and will have to be sterilised if they are to be used for processing into egg products.

A proposal for certain trade restrictions has already been presented to member states and the options will be discussed further with national food safety experts in September, with the aim of reaching an agreement as quickly as possible. It is in the interest of EU member states to reduce the levels of salmonella in their live flocks to the greatest possible extent, in order to avoid the heavy impact these measures could have on their poultry and egg industries.

These measures are part of the overall EU strategy to reduce foodborne diseases and are in line with a Europe-wide timetable for salmonella reduction targets for different animal species. Reducing the incidence of salmonella at farm level will lower its incidence through the rest of the food chain, and help meet the ultimate objective of protecting consumers in the EU.

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