The incidence of Salmonella in humans almost halved between 2004 and 2009 but new figures show that it has re-appeared, causing worries for food producers and health workers, but also for EU policymakers.
Salmonella is a bacterium that can cause an illness called salmonellosis in humans. It’s commonly found in the intestines of healthy birds and mammals. In foods, it is most frequently found in eggs and raw meat from pigs, turkeys and chickens.
A recent case that caught the attention of policymakers and consumers came from French dairy giant Lactalis, which decided to withdraw 12 million boxes of powdered baby milk contaminated with salmonella from the supermarkets in 83 countries.
Similarly, it was reported in Germany last month that 20,000 tonnes of soy-based animal feed were found to be contaminated with salmonella in Bavaria and another 12 in Länder.
A source close to the file said, “It is ironic to see that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is continuing to distribute videos on Salmonella showcasing the EU ‘success’ story, while simultaneously releasing figures that show the problem is now worse than it has been in many years.”
An ECDC/EFSA report published in December found that salmonella cases in humans have increased by 3% since 2014, while another EFSA report released last month into an ongoing salmonella outbreak in Poland has found hundreds of cases relating to this outbreak alone in 16 EU countries.
The RASFF notification system, a mechanism to exchange information among EU countries when risks to public health are detected in the food chain, identified a more than 50% increase in notifications for salmonella.
EURACTIV.com has contacted all the relevant EU food safety authorities to find out what could be behind salmonella’s rise. However, the cause is far from clear.
EFSA sees a change
An EFSA spokesperson admitted that there is a possible change in trends but the investigations over its causes is a matter for the competent authorities.
“One could assume that the increase in the number of cases could be partly attributed to more complete reporting and improvements in the surveillance of zoonotic diseases in few countries, for example in cases of salmonellosis. An increase in the number of reported salmonella cases could also partly reﬂect eventual decreasing focus on salmonella control,” the EFSA official noted.
The expert said the European Commission, considering the newly reported cases, had asked EFSA to re-evaluate certain programmes or consider additional measures for the salmonella control strategy.
A scientific opinion must be provided by January 2019.
ECDC: a ‘worrying’ trend
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) told EURACTIV that it was “worrying” that despite the control measures and high awareness at member state and EU-level, cases and outbreaks caused by salmonella have started to go up again.
“Until we fully understand what is happening, it is a signal that something has changed,” an ECDC expert said.
According to the expert, the human cases of Salmonella Enteritidis (the most common type of salmonella) had increased by 3% since 2014.
The Formaldehyde issue
EURACTIV also asked EFSA whether the ban of formaldehyde in animal feed could have contributed to the rise of salmonella cases.
Formaldehyde was used as a preservative to control Salmonella in animal feed for 20 years before its total ban in December 2017, following a reclassification of the product from the Biocide Regulation to the Feed Additives Regulation.
“With regards to formaldehyde, we are not in a position to comment as we have not received a request to carry out an evaluation on that,” the EFSA spokesperson noted.
In a 2014 risk assessment, EFSA concluded that there was no health risk for consumers exposed to this substance through the food chain. But it warned that its inhalation might cause cancer and called for measures to reduce worker exposure to feed containing formaldehyde.
The issue had been stuck in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, a committee of national experts chaired by the European Commission, for two-and-a-half years since its previous authorisation expired in 2015.
According to a document seen by EURACTIV, the Commission’s initial proposal was a 10-year re-authorisation based on the findings from EFSA. But the EU executive later proposed to deny its authorisation.
The Commission, asked by EURACTIV, made it clear that there is no link between salmonella’s re-appearance and the ban on formaldehyde because the latter has not yet formally taken effect.
“The simple explanation is that, first of all, the decision to deny the authorisation was only voted on by member states last December and translation, formal adoption by the Commission, publication in the Official Journal are currently ongoing in view of the formal adoption and entry into force probably this month,” an European Commission spokesperson said.
However, due to the regulatory uncertainty, several member states had already stopped using formaldehyde in animal feed well before December 2017. One of them was Poland, which is still coping with a massive salmonella outbreak, with more than 9,500 salmonella cases found in humans last year.
ADM, the company which recently faced the salmonella outbreak in Germany, had warned the Commission about its plan to deny the re-approval of formaldehyde.
“There is no equivalent replacement to formaldehyde with the same level of efficacy […] EFSA has not raised a feed safety concern in terms of the treated product; usage safety concerns should be dealt with under the appropriate legislation (HSE at work/REACH),” the company said at a public consultation.
The company also stressed that if the ban was to be ultimately implemented, then the authorities should get ready for exploring ways to manage the potential for a higher incidence of salmonella positives in feed.