Since late-2018, the Australian egg industry has responded to a series of incidents involving the bacteria Salmonella Enteritidis (SE).
During this time, 13 egg production facilities in NSW and one egg farm in Victoria had detections of SE. The first was in NSW in September 2018, and more detections followed as a result of a targeted program of testing and surveillance.
All the properties that were confirmed to have SE present were 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 focus has been on minimising the impact.
Protecting public health
Protecting human health is paramount and every effort has been made to minimise the risk to the community. In June 2019, at the peak of the SE outbreak, there was a total of 235 reported cases of Salmonella Enteritidis illness in humans across NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania.
While concerning, this 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 was a proportionate public response with product recalls resulting in sharp declines in cases of illness.
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.
For consumer-friendly information on eggs and salmonella click here.
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 to ensure that if SE emerges, it can be caught early. More recent incidents have been detected through this process and they continue to be limited to interconnected farms.
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 were 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.
The impact on the farms where SE was 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 years of drought that doubled the cost of feed grain, egg farmers 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.