Integration and cooperation key to control Salmonella
On 3 December 1988, British MP Edwina Currie went on UK television and told 10 million viewers that most of the egg production in the country was affected with Salmonella. Her statement sparked massive consumer panic and outrage among poultry producers, virtually collapsing the UK poultry industry overnight. Egg sales plummeted by 60%, four million hens were slaughtered, and 400 million unwanted eggs were destroyed. Currie’s rash actions eventually led to her resignation, but by then the chickens had flown the coop and the damage was done.
The British Egg Industry Council responded, saying her remarks were “factually incorrect and highly irresponsible”, claiming that the risk of an egg being infected with Salmonella was less than 200 million to one. Amid the crisis, the government mounted a multimillion Pound compensation package for egg producers.
In 2001, long after the furore had died down, a Whitehall report said that Currie had been largely right. Britain was in fact facing a “Salmonella epidemic of considerable proportions” in late 1988 and the issue had been downplayed by government and the industry. Cases of Salmonella Enteritidis, one of two strains likely to impact human health, and associated with poultry
production, had almost trebled in 1997/98.
There are over 2600 strains the Salmonella bacterium, of which two are key in human health. These live in the stomach and intestines of animals and humans and can even be found on fresh fruit and vegetable produce, largely due to crosscontamination. While the chances of contracting it are slim in properlycooked eggs and poultry, it can be a very nasty disease. If infected, a sufferer may experience fever, stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting. Most patients recover in a week but it can be deadly for vulnerable people like children, pensioners and the immunecompromised, particularly if it spreads into the bones or blood. Current global statistics point to 600 million documented cases of Salmonella infection in humans and 400 million deaths (more than malaria) and 40% of these deaths were in children under the age of five.
The UK poultry industry responded with an industry clean-up, implementation of strict monitoring protocols, and rigorous biosecurity measures. The real breakthrough only came with the introduction of vaccination of hens for Salmonella. The ‘Lion Mark’ was introduced by the British Egg Council for all eggs produced as a quality assurance stamp.
What does this have to do with SA’S poultry industry?
SA’s poultry industry faces some very tough challenges right now - a weakening rand, a drought-stricken maize harvest, local inflationary pressures, concerns around antibiotic resistance, and imports of frozen chicken portions that are threatening the market and costing jobs.
It is time for the industry to work together. Being proactive and responsive to the impact of changing production trends has never been more crucial. Amidst the challenges, there is good news. Firstly, SA’S largest agricultural sector employing some 54 000 people has taken significant strides towards the protection of the national flock, which in turn ensures food security as well as job security. The→
establishment of the Poultry Disease Management Agency (PDMA) was a significant step in underpinning the production of high quality, affordable protein as the cornerstone of the industry. The PDMA has since been working with the Veterinary Public Health section of DAFF to develop and implement a National Residue and Microbial Monitoring Programme, which is not only important for the local market, but also an enabler for SA to play a meaningful role in poultry exports in future.
Secondly, while the news of Salmonella outbreaks is relatively recent, our knowledge of what can be done to reduce Salmonella is not. We have been successfully reducing Salmonella for over 50 years. Our poultry industry can accomplish the task of Salmonella reduction by accepting one primary concept: Salmonella is a management disease.
The importance of an integrated approach
Stringent biosecurity measures and vaccination were arguably crucial success factors in the success of the Lion Code quality scheme. Of course, there is always a caveat. An effective Salmonella control program requires an integrated approach, including sound on-farm biosecurity practices, good hygiene and monitoring. But these efforts will not lead to adequate Salmonella control if birds are unable to prevent Salmonella from multiplying. Prevention is arguably much better than cure. For this reason, biosecurity must be a major component of a Salmonella control program, along with vaccination. Biosecurity is a set of precautionary measures designed to prevent the introduction and spread of Salmonella into poultry flocks and the related supply chain.
Although the implementation of a comprehensive biosecurity plan and vaccination process may mean a higher task load, neither should be considered as additional expense. It pays off fully for both flock health and consumer safety. It is an investment when it comes to sustainable flock performance in the prevention of poultry diseases, proper use of antibiotics as well as in a sound approach to produce Salmonella-free poultry products (Bowen et al, 2010).
With the rapidly expanding middle class and a global population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, there will be a greater demand for meat, milk and eggs. This means that we have to find a way to increase supply to meet demand and provide it sustainably and safely. Yet, since the 1990s, egg productivity has declined as a result of continued disease challenges, changing production practices and removing innovation from some parts of the world. On the current trajectory, the number of hens will have to nearly double to meet 2050 demand, which simply is not sustainable. As global foodproduction systems evolve to cope with this soaring demand, the poultry meat and egg industries must move toward total-management systems where addressing food safety is embedded in food-safety technologies, informatics and diagnostics.
It is only by working together - regulatory authorities, industry, veterinarians and scientists - that we can successfully control foodborne infections and reassure consumers of the safety and supply of the food they eat, and develop a quality assurance mark for South Africa so that consumers are assured of the origin and standards backing the eggs and chicken they purchase. The investment into prevention and cooperation are well worth it - in fact indispensable - for any producer that plans to be around in the next few years.¡