Irish salmonella outbreak traced to rare strain

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) says a total of six people have been taken ill in the Irish outbreak of salmonella.

The FSAI has confirmed that one person died as a result of the illness and that an investigation has been launched into the source of the salmonella. Two people died as a result of the salmonella outbreak in the United Kingdom, which has also been linked to imported Spanish eggs. Food safety authorities in the UK and Ireland are co-operating with each other and with authorities in Spain to pursue their investigations.

The strain of salmonella involved in both the Irish cases and those in Britain is salmonella enteritidis PT14b (naladixic acid resistant variant). It is an unusual strain of salmonella in Ireland and one that is one not found in egg laying flocks in Britain. The identification of the strain has enabled those investigating the outbreaks to establish a link to egg production premises in Spain.

In Britain the Food Standards Agency is investigating a total of 14 clusters in England and Wales. It is thought that seven of the 14 clusters were linked to Chinese or Thai restaurants, three to cafes, one to an Italian restaurant, one to a kebab shop and another to a mobile food vendor. There was also an outbreak at the Piers View Care Home in Sunderland. Three members of staff and five residents were taken ill. Two of the residents subsequently died in hospital. Figures released by the Food Standards Agency showed that a total of 443 cases of salmonella enteridis phage type (PT) 14b had been reported to the FSA during 2009 compared to 137 in 2008. The agency pointed to a particular increase in incidence since mid-August last year.

The FSA has since issued an update on its progress with the investigation. It said that although it was often difficult to identify the exact cause of outbreaks of food-borne illness, available evidence suggested that the increase in cases of salmonella enteritidis phage type (PT) 14b may be linked to egg production premises in Spain.

It said in a statement, "The UK and Spanish authorities have been working in close co-operation to investigate this case and the agency has received information from Spanish officials indicating that salmonella has been found in a particular flock on the production holding, Granja Avícola ’El Angel’, in Spain. Spanish authorities will ensure that no further eggs from the affected flock are distributed until they are satisfied that contamination is no longer present in the flock and barns.

"The FSA has contacted companies in the UK that are known to have received eggs from the affected establishment to ensure that they do not place these eggs on the market or that they send them to an authorised establishment to be pasteurised."

The Ranger has spoken to the FSA since that update was released. A spokesman for the agency said, "We are continuing to liaise closely with the Spanish authorities with regards to the implicated establishment, local authorities in UK and continue to monitor the situation in the UK."

The UK Government has come under fire from the British Egg Industry Council for not dealing with the issue more firmly. BEIC chairman Andrew Parker said in December, "It is because our Government won’t take a firm hand in this that we continue to have the problems. It is up to the Government to speak to the Spanish government and say ’look, enough is enough’. What we do expect is them to take steps to ensure we have eggs free from salmonella coming into this country."

The BEIC has criticised the FSA for failing to give clear advice to caterers about using safe eggs. It has asked the FSA to urgently review its advice to caterers to highlight the higher safety profile of eggs from flocks vaccinated against salmonella. More than 85 per cent of UK-produced eggs are produced under the British Lion scheme, which requires vaccination of hens against salmonella along with a range of other food safety measures. UK egg industry representatives say the best way to avoid salmonella outbreaks is to buy British Lion eggs.

The FSA has advised the public that there is a very low incidence of salmonella in UK eggs. The Food Standards Authority of Ireland has similarly pointed Irish consumers towards Ireland’s equivalent of the Lion - the An Bord Bia egg quality assurance logo. The FSAI says that eggs produced under the Bord Bia code are produced under strict conditions to prevent them becoming contaminated with salmonella.

A spokesman for the FSAI told the Ranger magazine that the association was co-operating with the FSA in the UK. The two organisations enjoyed a very close working relationship.

As part of its own investigation, the FSAI is seeking additional information about the sources of eggs on the Irish market. It has a complete list of suppliers of Irish eggs, but does not have comparable information on suppliers of non-Irish eggs into the Irish market. Egg and poultry marketing standards inspectors have been requested by the FSAI to inspect egg stamp codes at packing and distribution establishments, and to ascertain what non-Irish eggs are available, and provide the FSAI with details.

Environmental health officers have also been requested to inspect egg packing codes at catering and take-away establishments, ascertain what non-Irish eggs are available and provide the FSAI with details. Food business operators have also been asked to check egg codes, and have been advised to source good quality eggs and follow good hygiene practices.