Commission Press Release (IP/02/1764), 28 November 2002
Commissioner David Byrne welcomed the Agriculture Council's support today for two legislative proposals designed to cut the incidence of food-borne diseases in the European Union. The proposals, adopted by the Commission in August of last year (see IP/01/1167) and backed by Parliament in May 2002 (IP/02/724), provide for a thorough revision of current EU legislation and are designed to improve protective measures against "zoonoses", diseases transmissible between animals and humans. Zoonoses include diseases that lead to numerous sick days, needless deaths and large public health costs in the EU every year like salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and toxin producing E.coli.
"These proposals demonstrate how the Commission's 'farm to fork' approach is being implemented in practice to ensure safe food for consumers" said David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. "Currently, the number of food-borne infections affecting consumers across the EU is far too high. Salmonella alone infects over 160 000 individuals in the EU annually of which it is estimated that around 200 die. The annual costs of food-borne salmonella are estimated at up to €2.8 billion per year. I am therefore delighted that the Agriculture Council is moving this very important legislation forward through its support today. It will significantly decrease the presence of salmonella on farms thereby reducing human infections" .
What are the laws about?
The first draft law is a Directive on monitoring zoonotic agents, aiming to improve knowledge of the sources and trends of these pathogens, to support microbiological risk assessments and to serve as a basis to adopt measures to manage risks. The European Food Safety Authority will play a key role in assessing this information. The second draft law is a Regulation to reduce the occurrence of zoonotic agents, prioritising salmonella. The Regulation will apply to a major source of contamination primary production. A procedure is also provided to set targets for zoonotic agents other than salmonella. The pathogen-reducing targets will be set after an investigation on the prevalence of the pathogen in all the Member States has been conducted.
The Commission has agreed to make the mandatory control measures eligible for EU co-financing. The level of this financing will be determined in the light of a report on the financial arrangements that the Commission will produce within three years of entry into force of the Regulation.
A number of key measures put in place in follow-up to the White Paper also help in the battle against zoonoses. The food hygiene package will improve the implementation of hygiene measures at farm level. This package will also be the primary tool for actions at stages of the food chain after primary production. For instance, the Commission is currently in the process of revising the microbiological criteria applicable to food and strengthening risk-based controls along the food chain.
At this stage in the process, the proposals broadly reflect the principles underpinning the Commission's ambitious original aims. Certain aspects have been reinforced during discussions in the Council and in the European Parliament, like the possibility to monitor anti-microbial resistance not only for zoonotic agents, but also for other relevant bacteria. Additionally, salmonella controls will progressively not only cover different kinds of poultry and breeding pigs, but slaughter pigs as well. On the other hand, some compromises have been made. For example, transitional periods for Member States to implement programmes will be prolonged and controls in the initial phase will be restricted to a few serotypes of salmonella (these serotypes do however represent more than 70% of reported cases of salmonellosis in humans). Even if the compromise package agreed today is not as ambitious as the Commission would have originally liked, it represents a very substantial improvement compared with the current legislation.
Under the current EU legislation, found in Directive 92/117, there are rules for the compulsory monitoring of four zoonotic agents (salmonellosis, brucellosis, trichinosis and tuberculosis due to Mycobacterium bovis) as well as voluntary monitoring for others. However, food-borne outbreaks and monitoring of anti-microbial resistance are not covered, making it very difficult to harmonise schemes this will be provided for in the new Directive. There are currently compulsory measures to control certain types of salmonella (Salmonella Enteritidis and Salmonella Typhimurium) in breeding flocks of poultry, while the new Regulation will introduce control measures in more types of animal populations and potentially for more types of salmonella and other zoonotic agents. Certain EU states already go beyond this legislation on a voluntary basis, but currently without EU financing.
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 or direct contact with an infected animal. Salmonella, which is the priority target, can be found in a whole series of food products such as raw eggs, poultry, pork, beef, other products of animal origin and vegetables. Campylobacter is mainly found in chicken meat and its main symptom in humans is diarrhoea, although it can sometimes lead to a nerve disorder and paralysis in rare cases. Listeria and toxin producing E.coli are two other common infections.
Zoonoses are notoriously difficult to control given that a number of the micro-organisms involved are ubiquitous (they are found everywhere in nature) and not easily eliminated from the food chain. Pathogen reduction in animals is the most effective way to prevent the spread of infection via food, which is why the proposed Regulation sets up a framework for a pathogen reduction policy. At the same time, the proposed Directive sets up a system for monitoring certain zoonotic agents throughout the human food and animal feed chain.
Salmonella is identified as the priority target, especially in poultry products and eggs. Targets will be set in several steps, starting with breeding flocks of chickens, then laying hens, broilers, turkeys and slaughter pigs and finally breeding pigs. The first targets will be set 12 months after entry into force of the Regulation and each following step at 12-month intervals after that. National control programmes will be applied 18 months later for each target. After a transitional period, marketing restrictions will apply to table eggs from flocks suspected or confirmed of harbouring specific types of salmonella (starting 72 months after entry into force of the Regulation). Poultry meat will also have to comply with set microbiological criteria (starting after 84 months). A procedure is laid down to set targets for other animal populations and 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 and with third countries, certification of salmonella status will be made obligatory according to the specified time schedule above.
Following the political agreement in Council, the proposals will now go back to the European Parliament for a second reading.