Following a request from the European Commission to EFSA, the Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) and the Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) were asked to deliver a Scientific Opinion on the public health hazards (biological and chemical, respectively) to be covered by inspection of poultry meat. Briefly, these Panels were asked to identify and rank the main risks for public health that should be addressed by meat inspection, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current meat inspection methodology, to recommend inspection methods fit for the purpose of meeting the overall objectives of meat inspection for hazards currently not covered by the meat inspection system, and to recommend adaptations of inspection methods and/or frequencies of inspections that provide an equivalent level of protection. In addition, the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) was asked to consider the implications for animal health and animal welfare of any changes proposed to current meat inspection methods. The three EFSA Panels presented the following key conclusions and recommendations:
For biological hazards, a decision tree was developed and used for risk ranking poultry meat-borne hazards. The ranking was based on the magnitude of the human health impact, the severity of the disease in humans, the proportion of human cases that can be attributed to the handling, preparation and consumption of poultry meat, and the occurrence of the hazards in poultry flocks and carcasses. Campylobacter spp. and Salmonella spp. were considered to be of high public health relevance for poultry meat inspection. Extended spectrum b-lactamase (ESBL)/AmpC gene-carrying bacteria were considered to be of medium to high (E. coli), and low to medium (Salmonella) public health relevance. Data for ranking C. difficile were insufficient, but based on the limited information available, the risk at the present time was considered to be low. All other hazards were considered to be of low public health relevance.
Risk ranking of chemical hazards was based on the outcome of the National Residue Control Plans (NRCPs) as defined in Council Directive 96/23/EC for the period 2005-2010, as well as on substance-specific parameters such as the toxicological profile and the likelihood of the occurrence of residues in poultry. Dioxins, dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (DL-PCBs), and the banned antibiotics chloramphenicol, nitrofurans and nitroimidazoles were ranked as being of high potential concern; all other substances were ranked as of medium or lower concern. Based on the low percentage of non-compliant results reported by the NRCPs for the studied period of six years, it was concluded that chemical substances in poultry are unlikely to pose an immediate or acute health risk for consumers.
It should be noted that the ranking into specific risk categories of both biological and chemical hazards is based on current knowledge and available data and therefore mainly applies to broilers and turkeys.
The assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of current meat inspection regarding biological hazards focused on the public health risks that may occur through the handling, preparation and/or consumption of poultry meat. Strengths identified were that Food Chain Information (FCI), as part of ante-mortem inspection, provides information related to disease occurrence during rearing and veterinary treatments, enabling a focused ante-mortem inspection on flocks with animal health concerns. Ante-mortem inspection can be used to verify FCI given by the farmer and to provide feedback to producers on problems detected, which are mainly issues not related to public health. In addition, visual inspection of live animals can detect birds heavily contaminated with faeces. Such birds increase the risk of cross-contaminating carcasses with hazards during slaughter and may consequently constitute a food safety risk that can be reduced if such birds/carcasses are dealt with adequately. Visual detection of faecal contamination of carcasses at post mortem inspection can also be an indicator of slaughter hygiene, but other approaches to verify slaughter hygiene are considered more appropriate.
With regard to chemical hazards, it was noted that current procedures for sampling and testing are in general well-established and co-ordinated, including follow-up mechanisms following identification of non-compliant samples. The current system is well-endorsed by sector stakeholders, and the regular sampling and testing for chemical residues and contaminants is a disincentive for the development of undesirable practices. Moreover, the prescriptive sampling system allows for equivalence to be achieved for European Union (EU) domestic poultry.
The following food safety-related weaknesses in the field of biological hazards were identified: FCI lacks adequate and standardised indicators for the main public health hazards except for Salmonella in broiler and turkey flocks. Current ante-mortem and post-mortem visual inspection are not able to detect any of the public health hazards identified as the main concerns for food safety. Ante-mortem examination is carried out only on birds in a sample of crates and the observation of individual birds in the crates is difficult. The high speed of the slaughter lines reduces the sensitivity of detection of lesions or faecal carcass contamination by visual inspection and only, at best, a sample of the birds can be thoroughly examined. For the chemical hazards, a major weakness is the limited value of the visual ante-mortem and post-mortem inspection for the identification of chemical residues and contaminants. In addition, NRCPs prescribe the number of samples that need to be taken, but do not necessarily take into account actual FCI related to feed control and environmental monitoring of substances of potential health concern. A further integration and exchange of information between these different activities is recommended.
As none of the main biological hazards of public health relevance and associated with poultry meat can be detected by traditional visual meat inspection, the BIOHAZ Panel proposes the establishment of an integrated food safety assurance system achievable through improved FCI and interventions based on risk. This includes clear and measurable targets at carcass level and, when appropriate, flock level indicating what food business operators (FBOs) should achieve in respect to a particular hazard. An important element of an integrated food safety assurance system is risk categorisation of poultry flocks based on FCI. In addition to flock-specific information, farm descriptors provided through farm audits could be included to assess the risk and protective factors for the flocks related to the given hazards. Classification of abattoirs according to their capability to prevent or reduce faecal contamination of carcasses can be based on the technologies applied including installed equipment and the hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) programmes in place and/or on the process hygiene as measured by for example the level of indicator organisms such as E. coli or Enterobacteriaceae on the carcasses, i.e. establishment of Process Hygiene Criteria (PHC). The differentiation of abattoirs could provide a way of sending flocks presenting specific risk levels to adapted slaughter lines or abattoirs.
In conclusion, for biological hazards it was assessed that a wider, more systematic and better focused use of the FCI will have positive impact on control of the main public health hazards associated with poultry meat. Ante-mortem inspection of poultry can help to detect birds heavily contaminated with faeces and to assess the general health status of the flock. No adaptations to the existing visual ante-mortem inspection are found to be required. In contrast, it is proposed that the current post-mortem visual inspection is replaced by the establishment of targets for the main hazards on the carcass and by verification of the FBO’s own hygiene management through the use of PHC. It is noted though, that current post-mortem inspection does not increase the microbiological risk to public health unless the carcasses are handled as a consequence of the visual detection of abnormalities, leading to cross-contamination. A series of recommendations were made regarding biological hazards on data collection, interpretation of monitoring results, future evaluations of the meat inspection system and hazard identification/ranking, training of all parties involved in the poultry carcass safety assurance system, and needs for research on optimal ways to use FCI and approaches for assessing the public health benefits.
The risk profile for individual farms and poultry species regarding chemical hazards varies due to the diversity of poultry farming in the EU. It was recommended that sampling of poultry carcasses should be based on the available FCI, including results from feed controls. Frequency of sampling for farms should be adjusted accordingly and should be regularly updated in order to include new and emerging substances. Dioxins and DL-PCBs were considered as “new” chemical hazards as they were ranked as being of high potential concern, but have not yet been comprehensively covered by the sampling plans (NRCPs) of the current meat inspection. For a number of other organic contaminants that also may accumulate in food-producing animals, very limited data regarding residues in poultry are available. This is the case, in particular, for non dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls, brominated flame retardants, including polybrominated diphenylethers and hexabromocyclododecanes. The potential occurrence of these substances in poultry carcasses should be monitored to improve human exposure assessment.
Complementary to the assessment of consumer’s health risks, implications for animal health and welfare of the proposed changes to the meat inspection system were investigated, particularly the omission of visual post-mortem inspection and extensive use of FCI. Two broad methods were used during this assessment, including a qualitative approach (review of scientific literature, expert opinion) and results from quantitative modelling.
In the meat inspection system, ante- and post-mortem inspection are recognised as valuable tools for surveillance and monitoring of specific animal health and welfare issues. Meat inspection is often a key point for identifying outbreaks of existing or new disorders or disease syndromes in situations where clinical signs are not detected on-farm. In the course of normal commercial procedures, ante- and post-mortem inspection of poultry is an appropriate and practical way to evaluate the welfare of poultry on-farm, and the only way to evaluate the welfare of poultry during transport and associated handling.
Two key consequences of omission of visual post-mortem inspection on surveillance and monitoring for poultry health and welfare were identified: the loss of opportunities for data collection about the occurrence of existing or new disorders or disease syndromes or welfare conditions of poultry, and the potential for carcasses with pathological changes, currently condemned during visual post-mortem inspection, to be further processed without the infectious nature of some conditions being detected.
If visual post-mortem inspection is removed, other approaches should be explored and applied to compensate for any associated loss of information about the occurrence of animal disease and welfare conditions. Two approaches are outlined. Firstly, it is recommended that post-mortem checks continue on each carcass that is removed from the food chain, as part of a meat quality assurance system for example, due to visible pathological changes or other abnormalities. In addition, it is proposed that detailed inspection is conducted on a defined subset of carcasses from each batch, guided by FCI and other epidemiological criteria, to obtain information about animal disease and welfare conditions. The intensity (number of birds sampled) of targeted surveillance within each batch should be risk-based, with sampling of birds conducted randomly to provide a representative picture of the health and welfare of birds in the batch.
Extended use of FCI has the potential to compensate for some, but not all, of the information on animal health and welfare that would be lost if visual post-mortem inspection is removed. This can only occur if FCI are designed to identify indicators for the occurrence of animal health and welfare conditions. FCI for public health purposes may not have an optimal design for surveillance and monitoring of animal health and welfare; therefore, an integrated system should be developed where FCI for public health and for animal health and welfare can be used in parallel.