A major public health threat
Salmonella – a bacterium causing salmonellosis in humans – was until 2005 the most common food-borne disease in the European Union (EU) with almost 200.000 reported human cases that year. It is estimated that the overall economic burden of human salmonellosis for the EU could be as high as €3 billion a year.
Salmonellosis is a zoonosis – disease or infection that can be transmitted directly or indirectly between animals and humans. The bacterium is commonly found in the intestines of healthy birds and mammals. It can spread to humans through contaminated eggs and meat, most often poultry and pig meat. Usual symptoms include fever, diarrhoea and abdominal cramps.
Joint EU actions scientifically supported by EFSA
To combat human salmonellosis it is important to reduce Salmonella in animals and derived products so that food is safer for consumers. In 2003, the EU set up comprehensive control measures for zoonoses, considering Salmonella as a priority. Enhanced Salmonella programmes in poultry were implemented in all EU Member States and targets were set for reducing the bacteria in poultry flocks (laying hens, broilers and turkeys).
To support the reduction of Salmonella in the food chain, EFSA has advised on the risks for public health from infected animals and provided recommendations and advice on control and reduction measures, such as reduction targets in poultry and poultry meat and the use of vaccines and antimicrobials for the control of Salmonella. EFSA has also evaluated the impact of different control measures for Salmonella in pigs.
EFSA has assisted decision-makers by analysing the results of EU-wide baseline surveys on the prevalence of Salmonella in food and food-producing animals, including evaluating the risk factors that contribute to its prevalence in animal populations and food. In addition, the occurrence of Salmonella in humans, animals and food is monitored and analysed in EU Summary Reports prepared by EFSA and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control each year to provide up-to-date information on the current situation in Europe.
A concrete example of EFSA’s work is the Authority’s contribution to the setting of EU reduction targets for Salmonella in laying hens. To determine the original situation, the European Commission and EU Member States carried out an EU-wide survey on the prevalence of the bacteria in poultry flocks and EFSA analysed the results of the survey. Based on the findings EU and national decision-makers set targets to significantly reduce the prevalence of Salmonella in flocks of laying hens to 2% or less over time in all EU Member States (from an original situation of around 20% in some Member States). The impact of the reduction and control programme on the actual prevalence of Salmonella in animals and its impact on human salmonellosis cases is analysed annually in EU Summary Reports. In light of possible revisions of the current targets, EFSA also estimated the public health benefits that could be achieved from the setting of new targets.
Significant reduction of Salmonella in humans and animals
The coordinated approach by all EU actors has had significant results: human Salmonella cases have been reduced by almost 50% in the EU over five years (2004-2009). At the same time, the prevalence of Salmonella in poultry decreased significantly, especially in laying hen flocks. The reduction of the bacteria in laying hen flocks is likely to be the main reason for the decline of Salmonella cases in humans, since eggs are considered the most important source of human infections in the EU.
EFSA and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control continue to analyse the data collected from the Member States on a yearly basis to further monitor the situation and the progress made in meeting reduction targets set for Salmonella in various animal populations. EFSA’s continued scientific work, including assessments of new mitigation options and reduction targets where necessary, helps the European Commission and the Member States to consider possible reviews of existing targets and other control options to further combat this public health threat.