Back in 1988 the UK egg industry was in crisis. Junior health minister Edwina Currie had just issued her ill advised “most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with Salmonella” comment and sales were falling as consumers took note. Although Currie was forced to resign over her less than accurate claim, there was little doubt that an epidemic of human Salmonella Enteritidis infection was mainly due to endemic contamination in the egg industry. How things have changed. This week saw the publication of a draft report from the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological safety of Foods (ACMSF), which classifies the Salmonella risk from shell eggs produced by the best practice Lion Code scheme as very low and recommends that raw or lightly cooked Lion Code eggs can be safely given to vulnerable consumers.
This remarkable turnaround has been achieved by a collaborative effort to control Salmonella contamination and develop best practice at every step in the egg supply chain from farmers to retailers. The outcome is the Lion Code scheme, which includes measures like the comprehensive vaccination of laying flocks, temperature controlled distribution for eggs, date stamping and significant improvements in hygiene at every stage in production. As a result, the incidence of human salmonellosis in the UK has fallen significantly over the last 20 years, as it has in other countries that have adopted similar controls. This shows what can be done when the food industry makes a conscious decision to deal with a food safety hazard, and it is not only consumers that benefit. Many retailers now only sell UK eggs produced under the Lion Code scheme and they carry a price premium over other eggs, so that joining the scheme gives egg producers a big competitive advantage. It’s a great example of why focusing attention on food safety makes for good business.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the global meat industry could adopt the same collaborative approach to tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance in foodborne pathogens? The annual EFSA/ECDC Summary report on antimicrobial resistance in zoonotic bacteria has also recently been published and reveals a growing problem of antibiotic resistant pathogens showing up in animals, food and people. For instance, nearly 70% of all Campylobacter strains isolated from chicken meat in Europe in 2014 were resistant to ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic often used to treat human infections. Resistance to the ‘last resort’ antimicrobial drug colistin has also started to appear in Salmonella and E. coli.
But the report contains evidence that suggests how this dangerous trend might be reversed, in the form of regional differences in resistance levels. Countries in the South and East of Europe show the highest levels of resistance, whereas they are significantly lower in the North. It cannot be a coincidence that lower quantities of antimicrobials are used in meat production in some northern European countries, especially in Scandinavia. The obvious example is Denmark, which banned the use of antibiotic growth promoters in 2000. The country’s substantial meat industry does not seem to have suffered too much as a result. Early problems were addressed and the initial investment proved to be well worthwhile in the long term. Following the Danish example in other countries would not solve the problem of antibiotic resistance, but it would be a big step in the right direction and it would show willingness by industry to put people, rather than profits, first.