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Health and Consumer Protection

Press releases

Brussels, 1 August 2001

Zoonoses: Commission puts forward proposals to combat food-borne diseases like salmonella or E.coli

Diarrhoea, fever, headaches, vomiting - familiar symptoms for 166.000 people in the European Union who where infected with human salmonellosis in 1999. Salmonellosis is a serious illness and sometimes can even be fatal. Salmonellosis is the most reported zoonotic disease in European countries. Zoonoses are diseases or infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Infection usually happens as a result of eating products of animal origin. Salmonella can be found in a whole series of food products such as raw eggs, poultry, pork, beef, other meat products and dairy products. Salmonella is just one zoonotic agent: the "second most common" in humans, campylobacter, is responsible for an additional 127.000 reported cases of food-borne illness in the EU in 1999. The main symptom of campylobacter infection is diarrhoea, but it can sometimes lead to a nerve disorder and paralysis in rare cases. Most infections occur sporadically with a seasonal peak in summer. Campylobacter infection is mainly found in chicken meat. Listeria and E.coli are two other common infections caused by zoonotic agents. Against this background the European Commission, on the initiative of David Byrne, Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner, has today adopted a report and two proposals to review current legislation and to improve the prevention and control of zoonoses. The report examines the experience gained since the mid 1990s in combating zoonoses and concludes that fundamental changes in the approach to monitoring and control are necessary. To that end, the Commission proposes a new Directive obliging Member States to put in place improved and better co-ordinated monitoring systems. In addition the Commission proposes a Regulation on the control of salmonella and other food-borne zoonotic agents. This Regulation sets out a framework for pathogen reduction to reduce the occurrence of these organisms by setting Community-wide targets for zoonotic agents in specific animal populations, and possibly at other stages along the food chain. The specific rules on the control of zoonoses will concern producers of breeding poultry, laying hens, broilers, turkeys and breeding pigs in all EU Member States.

Today's action is part of the follow-up to the White Paper on Food Safety. The proposals are based on the advice of the Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures relating to Public Health and will be subject to co-decision by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. "This is a major step in our campaign to improve food safety. The fact that many people suffer every year from food-borne illness, which can sometimes even prove fatal, does not appear to get major media attention. Salmonellosis is priority number one for us. Poultry products and eggs are generally recognised as being the primary source of food-borne salmonellosis.

I want to see a system in place that ensures that purchasers of live animals or hatching eggs know if the holding where they come from is salmonella-free or not. We also need to look at the provisions for marketing poultry meat and eggs," said Commissioner David Byrne. "The measures will mean that poultry businesses will have to pay more attention to salmonella control. This will bring benefits to consumers and contribute to improving consumer confidence in the safety of food, in particular poultry products and eggs."

A number of key measures put in place in follow-up to the White Paper help also in the battle against zoonoses. The proposals for a regulation on food hygiene - put forward by the Commission in July 2000 - will set out a framework for setting food safety standards and implementing Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points principles, based on risk assessment. It will lead to improvements in the implementation of hygiene measures at farm level. The analysis of monitoring data will be a task for the future European Food Authority.

Proposed Directive on the monitoring of zoonoses

The proposed directive on the monitoring of zoonoses lays down a system for monitoring certain zoonotic agents throughout the human food and animal feed chain. In addition, Member States will be required to take part in co-ordinated monitoring programmes in order to establish baseline values on the level of most important zoonotic infections in each Member State. These programmes will be co-financed from the Community budget. The new monitoring requirements also include the collection of data on the incidence of zoonotic diseases in humans, on the occurrence of food-borne outbreaks and the monitoring of antimicrobial resistance in certain zoonotic agents.

Proposed regulation to reduce zoonotic agents - priority: salmonella

The proposed regulation sets up a framework for a pathogen reduction policy, especially in animal populations. This is the most effective way to prevent the spread of infection via food. Community targets for this reduction policy are to be set progressively on the basis of scientific opinion, according to a fixed timetable. Salmonella is identified as the priority target, especially in poultry products and eggs. The targets are to apply from 2005 onwards to breeding flocks of chicken, from 2006 onwards to laying hens, from 2007 onwards to broilers, from 2008 onwards to turkeys and breeding pigs. After a transitional period marketing restrictions will apply to table eggs from flocks suspected or confirmed of harbouring specific types of salmonella (from 2008 onwards). Poultry meat will also have to comply with set microbiological criteria from 2009 onwards. A procedure is also laid down to set targets for other animal populations or zoonotic agents other than salmonella.

To achieve the reduction targets, Member States will need to adopt national control programmes and encourage the private sector to collaborate. For trade between Member States in relevant live animals and hatching eggs, certification of salmonella status will be made obligatory according to the above time schedule. With respect to third country imports into the EU equivalent certification measures will be required following the same schedule. The proposal gives the Commission the option to exclude certain control methods to be used against zoonoses such as the use of antibiotics or vaccination in animal populations, or to decide on conditions for their use.

Report on implementation of current legislation to control zoonoses

The report as adopted today evaluates the implementation of the current Directive 92/117/EEC on the control of zoonoses. The control measures in the current legislation cover only two types of salmonella in poultry breeding flocks. Deadlines for plans for monitoring and control of salmonella in fowl flocks have been postponed. Nevertheless, both national authorities and private businesses in all Member States have taken measures against salmonella and other zoonotic organisms.

BACKGROUND

Scientific Opinion

The Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures relating to Public Health published in April 2000 an opinion on the control of zoonoses along the food chain, which calls for tighter controls and improved monitoring to reverse the trend towards an increase in zoonotic diseases in the last decades. The Committee identified seven food-borne zoonoses (Salmonella, Campylobacter, Verotoxigenic Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Cryptosporidium, Echinococcus granulosus and Trichinella spiralis) as the highest public health priorities in this area in Europe. Zoonoses are notoriously difficult to control given that a number of the micro-organisms involved are ubiquitous and not easily eliminated from the food chain. The scientists considered that the epidemiological data as currently collected by the Member States is incomplete and not fully comparable. The data available however indicates an increase in reported food-borne zoonotic diseases over the last 20 years.

Epidemiological situation on zoonoses in the EU

The Annual Report on Trends and Sources of Zoonotic Agents in animals, feedingstuff, food and man in the European Union (and Norway) for 1999 was presented by the Commission in March 2001. All 15 Member States submitted their annual reports, but the quality of the data suffers from unharmonised surveillance systems and the fact that not all Member States forwarded details on all zoonoses covered by the EU reporting system. A summary of the report is available at: http://ec.europa.eu/food/fs/sfp/mr/mr08_en.pdf

Two zoonoses caused most of the reported cases of human illnesses: Salmonella and Campylobacter, with 165.659 and 126.981 reported cases in 1999, respectively. Of the other zoonoses, for which information is collected, 8.309 cases were reported for Yersinia, 3.843 for Brucella, 665 for Listeria, 554 for Echinococcus, 309 for Toxoplasma, 155 for Mycobacterium bovis and 48 for Trichinella. No human rabies cases occurred in 1999. The EU report of 1999 included also information on human cases of verotoxigenic E.coli (VTEC) infections with 1.892 cases.

These figures have to be interpreted carefully, since it is likely that many human infections go unrecorded because either patients fail to report the illness, or because no laboratory diagnosis is made, or because the diagnosis is not reported centrally. The cases reported may in fact only represent the lower end of the spectrum of the disease. Despite this underreporting, the magnitude of these human health problems is significant.

As regards details on the gravity of these zoonoses, the total number of fatalities is not recorded. However, certain data are known:

  • According to the SCVPH opinion on zoonoses of 12 April 2000, in approximately 5% of salmonellosis cases, sequellae (like reactive arthritis) arise. In around 2% of these complicated cases (i.e. 1 in every 1000 salmonellosis cases), the patient dies. This ratio would lead to an estimate of around 200 fatalities per year in the EU. Reduced sensitivity of certain salmonella strains to antibiotics may not only prolong the duration of clinical disease but also affect the incidence of sequellae or death.
  • Again according to the above scientific opinion, Campylobacter can also cause a serious disease, Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder resulting in acute neuromuscular paralysis. It is estimated to occur about once in every 1000 cases of campylobacteriosis.
  • As regards listeriosis, the incidence is much lower than for the two other zoonoses above, but the case fatality rate (proportion of cases that die) is reported being between 20 and 40%. In immuno-compromised individuals, the reported case fatality rates may approach 75% according to the above scientific opinion.
  • As regards VTEC (verotoxigenic E.coli) infections, around 5% of cases progress into haemolytic uraemic syndrome and of these cases, 3-5% die and a similar proportion develop major sequellae.

Published on 01/08/2001

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