Public health hangs in the balance with salmonella risk

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Like Glyphosate, the formaldehyde question has been stuck at the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed. [Nathan Reading/Flickr]

Salmonella, one of Europe’s most prevalent food-borne diseases, has been on the retreat the past decade, but EU experts have so far failed to protect a two-year deadlock that could see one of the most important tools in the fight against salmonella banned, writes Randall Ennis.

Randall Ennis is the CEO of the World Poultry Foundation.

The use of formaldehyde in animal feed – one of the effective tools in a biosecurity program to protect the food chain and ultimately humans from salmonella – is neither authorised nor banned, and the health of millions hangs in the balance.

As a former CEO of one of the world’s largest primary breeders, I have seen first-hand the role that feed can play in salmonella infection, and the effectiveness of formaldehyde based additives in the prevention of this threat. No one is saying that feed is the only route of infection in poultry, but we had verified evidence of the presence of salmonella in feedstuffs, and the transmission of the organism into poultry.

Like Glyphosate, the formaldehyde question has been stuck in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed – a committee of national experts chaired by the European Commission – where the necessary qualified majority has not been achieved.

Over a decade ago, the European Commission decided to take on salmonella – most often found in poultry and eggs, and sometimes causing death or serious illness. The Commission’s campaign has been a huge success; they made the issue a priority – setting clear targets for member states, introducing regulations to improve hygiene and funding national control programmes – and the impact on human health has been huge. The number of salmonella cases in humans has been halved over the past decade.

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But today that trend is at risk of being stopped, and the good work undone. There is no effective alternative to formaldehyde, and some countries which have withdrawn the substance from use due to the uncertainty have seen salmonella cases spike for the first time in years. Finland, which has a strict ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy on Salmonella, has trialled alternatives but found them ineffective, jeopardising food safety and adding extra costs to producers.

European farmers and producers are proud of their reputation for food safety and high standards. And to deliver on those high standards they need the right tools. Applied as a feed additive, formaldehyde is the most effective tool to protect poultry and pigs from salmonella. Of that there is no dispute.

Formaldehyde is a threshold carcinogen – it occurs naturally in the human body and in things we eat like pears, but over certain limits it can have negative effects. That’s why control measures and exposure limits for workers are essential. But banning its use at any level makes as much sense as banning pears.

The European Food Safety Authority agrees. In its opinion delivered in 2015, it concluded that “Under specific conditions, the preparation of formaldehyde does not have an adverse effect on animal health, consumer safety or the environment, and that it has the potential to reduce bacterial growth in feed contaminated with Salmonella” while acknowledging that “due to the respiratory risk derived from the handling of formaldehyde…strict measures are necessary to protect the safety of users”.  And in its draft reauthorisation proposal the Commission recognises the “current lack of alternative products which prove both safe and efficacious for reducing the contamination of feed with Salmonella”.

European policymakers and national experts must strike a balance, and that balance must ensure human health is protected from salmonella to the fullest extent. Worker protection can be ensured through industry best practice, and through the strict application of exposure levels set by the Commission’s Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits, national safety authorities and others. What cannot be guaranteed is the high level of protection against salmonella that the public currently enjoys.

After a major outbreak last year, EFSA encouraged one member state to “apply all measures that can reduce the risk of Salmonella in laying hen farms” in addition to the control measures already in place.

Formaldehyde is a crucial tool for farmers and producers alike, which allows them to guarantee the highest level of protection from salmonella and other pathogens and ensuring public confidence in poultry and eggs.

European policymakers must act to ensure its continued use.

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