Salmonella Enteritidis update
The Australian egg industry is continuing to respond to a series of incidents involving Salmonella Enteritidis (SE).
Currently, eleven NSW egg farms and one Victorian egg farm have had detections of SE. The first detection was in NSW in September 2018 and, since then, more detections have occurred because of a targeted program of testing and surveillance. Testing is continuing across a number of sites.
All the properties confirmed to have had SE present are interconnected in that people, eggs or equipment were moving between them.
SE is not endemic in Australia and it remains unclear how this strain arrived here. Given the regular movements of people from overseas and imported goods, there are many possibilities for SE to enter Australia.
It is unfortunate that this pathogen has made its way to egg farms but the current focus is on minimising the impact.
Protecting public health
Protecting human health is paramount and every effort is being taken to minimise the risk to the community. As at 17 June 2019, there was a total of 235 reported cases of Salmonella Enteritidis illness in humans across NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania.
While this is very concerning, the impact sits within the long-term average of Salmonella infection rates nationally. In 2018, there were 14,154 reported cases of Salmonella illness in Australia across all foods.
There has been a proportionate public response with product recalls resulting in sharp declines in cases of illness. Overall egg consumption remaining strong across the year and is slightly higher than last year’s volume.
Basic safe food practices are still the best way for consumers to protect against Salmonella risks. These practices include ensuring eggs are cooked thoroughly and preventing opportunity for cross-contamination. These steps can be effective even if a product is contaminated.
Responding to incidents
Every effort is being made by government and industry to limit the spread of SE while assessing management options. Steps taken include quarantine and movement restrictions, farm depopulation and decontamination of impacted farms.
An intensive tracing and testing process has been conducted by government authorities across the year to ensure that if SE emerges, it can be caught early. The recent incidents have been detected through this process and they continue to be limited to interconnected farms.
The process has been a learning experience; government and industry have had to work through responding to a new and unique bacteria, along with new scenarios arising from increased free range egg production. These new protocols have been captured and will form part of industry biosecurity management going forward.
The SE incidents have raised the issue of traceability, with egg farms wanting a greater level of certainty about the origin of eggs they purchase so they can ensure strong biosecurity is maintained across their supply chain.
Putting stamps on eggs to identify the source of eggs is required in all states but this generally applies at the sites where eggs are packaged and not necessarily on farm.
Comprehensive traceability systems are implemented on a voluntary basis but the SE incidents have sparked consideration of how this could be achieved more consistently. The industry is engaging with governments to discuss options for improvement which could provide benefits for egg farmers and consumers.
It’s not about that
The SE incidents have been linked in the media to a number of egg industry issues that emerge from time to time. These include suggestions that food safety risks have been caused or exacerbated by: intensive farming, cage, barn or free range farming, farm size or free range outdoor stocking density.
These issues have more to do with competitive jostling and personal values than evidence and have not been particularly helpful in building an understanding of the SE incidents.
SE risks are driven by biosecurity practices and farm management. It is these issues that are the focus of industry and government in responding.
It is not an easy time for the egg industry. The impact on the farms where SE has been detected has been devastating, with many unable to recover from the loss of their flock and being unable to sell eggs into the marketplace.
More broadly, having withstood a year of drought that doubled the cost of feed grain, egg farmers now face the cost of even higher biosecurity measures.
Nonetheless, the egg industry remains committed to managing this new challenge to maintain the confidence of the community in Australian eggs.