The rising tide of food-borne zoonotic diseases -transmittable from animal to man – could be reversed across Europe if legislators tighten up on food Control and inspection procedures, a European Union report has claimed.

And a new super task force incorporating zoonoses centres, human resources and sentinel labs could target everyone from the farmer to the retailer, in a bid to tighten up safety at every stage of the food chain.

The proposals, which form one of the recommendations of the Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health, also called for better monitoring and surveillance systems.

The committee’s said: “There is a potential for significant improvement in the present food control and inspection procedures, which to our present knowledge could reverse the increasing trend in zoonotic food-borne disease.

“More could be done to enhance food safety and what is done could be done better”

It added: “A formal collaboration between the medical, veterinary, food and feed authorities in each Member State is needed to strengthen zoonosis prevention, outbreak, recognition and control. There should be seamless supervision of the feed chain from feed mills, to the point of sale, to customers.

“Networks should be encouraged for the important zoonotic agents and results should be made accessible to all relevant groups in the food chain. Zoonoses centres, task forces and sentinel labs could be helpful to achieve this objective.”

Zoonoses can reach the consumer through faecally contaminated animal products, infected eggs and through faecally contaminated produce, notably vegetables and fruits, and water.

The committee identified a group of seven zoonoses as top public health priorities in the EU, namely Salmonella, Campylobacter, Verotoxinogenic Escheria coli (E-coli), Listeria monocytogenes, Cryptosporidium, Echinococcus granulosus and Trichinella spiralis.

Its report makes a number of recommendations including the international introduction of a set of Food Safety Objectives (FSO): a statement of the maximum concentration of microbiological hazard in a food that is considered acceptable for consumption.

It also says that foodstuffs carrying a risk of containing zoonotic pathogens should be appropriately labelled, and the pack should include instructions on cooking, refrigeration and handling.

Hot on the tracks of the EU, members of the World Health Organisation will meet later this week (June 29) to examine zoonotic diseases and food safety, which it has identified as an increasing public health concern.

The organisation is set to recommend global surveillance of zoonotic diseases as part of its Food Safety Workplan for the coming year.

A WHO spokesman told “Available data indicates that the frequency of food borne disease is increasing in almost all countries. Up to 30 per cent of the population in industrialised countries may be affected by food borne illness each year and the problems are even more serious in developing countries.”

He added: “Policy makers and consumers in many countries are re-evaluating their strategy for food safety and the international aspects of public health within that strategy. The traditional regulatory principles are, (or should be), under revision. The old systems of control are not working efficiently to prevent food borne disease under the new systems of production, neither in developing nor in developed countries. Revision and new thinking is urgently needed.”

Proposals at the meeting will include the strengthening of national, regional and global laboratory based surveillance systems, and response to the major foodborne diseases. As with the EU, it will investigate a uniform international monitoring system, risk assessment methodology and advice and new preventitive strategies.

The WHO already proposes giving emphasis to the development of human resources in food control, quality assurance systems, healthy market places, integration of food safety in the health care system, risk assessment, and surveillance and investigation of food-borne disease outbreaks.

The rising trend in food-borne zoonoses, including those which derive from animals, has been documented over the past few decades. In Germany the reported incidence of infectious from 11 per 100,000 in 1965 to 193 per 100,000 in 1999. And in the USA the estimated incidence for salmonellosis alone is 20 cases per 100,000, with an estimated 7,000 deaths per year.

Dr Kofi Aidoo, member of the Institute of Food Science and Technology and the School of Biomedical and Biological Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University, told “Figures in developed countries show the trend for an increase in food-borne diseases and are well documented. Figures from Developing Countries are not as readily available but they do show an upward trend as well.

“Consumers face a very high risk from both bacterial and viral food-borne diseases. The main challenges facing the world’s food producers and dealers are to provide effective education and awareness programmes, to improve farming methods and controlled use of anti-microbials.”

“More could be done in terms of effective surveillance programmes to assess the extent of the problem, particularly in developing countries.”

He added: “I think the EU’s plans to regulate the whole food chain can be achieved and in developed countries the regulations can keep pace with incidence of zoonoses. The main problem is in developing countries, the majority of which lie in the tropics. These are the ideal conditions for the proliferation of pathogens.”

According to the World Health Organisation, zoonoses emerge for many reasons – first and foremost the globalisation of our food supplies, and also due to changes in the microorganisms themselves.

Dr David Heyman, WHO executive director of the Communicable Diseases
Cluster, said: “A worrying tendency, causing concern about successfully treating patients, is that new micro-organisms are emerging, and some of these are developing resistance to antibiotics which used to be effective.”

He added that the range of micro-organisms responsible for the majority of food-borne diseases is not very broad and it is likely that less than two dozen species account for more than 90 per cent of the disease.

A steady stream of cases is reported from across Europe monthly from a range of surveillance systems: 23 cases of listeriosis were identified throughout Finland between June 1999 and February 2000, 10 of these caused by the listeria monocytogenes strain. Four elderly patients died within one month of the positive listeria culture, two of them within one week.

Listeria Monocytogenes of the same type has been identified in samples of Finnish vacuum packed and cold salted fish products and the association is being investigated. Hot smoked products were rarely contaminated.

Now food authorities in Finland have been asked to report the L.monocytogenes strain isolated from fishery establishments in their area so that fisheries can be checked thoroughly and further testing can be done.

A previous outbreak of listeriosis was caused by contaminated butter in Finland in 1998/99 and outbreaks in France this year have been associated with eating ready-to-eat ham and pork tongue in jelly.

Despite the relentless rise in food-borne illnesses and the clear calls for better regulation of the food chain across international borders, the World Trade Organisation has launched a trade round on agricultural products which will result in the erasing of more barriers.

Spokesman for agriculture for the WTO, Peter Ungphakorn, said: “The WTO has to strike a balance between a number of needs. People would like to be able to trade as freely as possible without having arbitrary obstacles put in their way. But we also need to protect consumers. They need to be safe and ensure safety for people and animals.”

Now the European Commission has told food producers that they could do better in their farming, transporting, secondary production, retail and catering food safety systems.

This Summer, as part of its food safety white paper recommendations, measures are planned to combat listeria and Salmonella. A planned revision to Council Directive 92/117/EEC will aim at introducing mandatory monitoring of the most important zoonotic infections and set up a framework for risk reduction measures.

Existing measures on salmonella will be reinforced and extended from
breeding flocks to chicken meat and egg production. And it is foreseen that this will be extended to control Salmonella in pig and turkey production. This comes in the wake of plans for a European Food Authority, which will help the food industry assess its risks.

European Commission spokeswoman for consumer affairs, Beate Gminder, said: “The Member States already work together closely on all aspects of control of zoonoses. For all areas, there is solid European legislation in place which will be further fine tuned.”

“We are working on a revision of the zoonoses directive which will look at how to implement the ideas of zoonoses centres, task forces and sentinel labs. The revision is not finalised and therefore I cannot be more precise and detailed at this stage.

“The European Food Authority would be mainly engaged in scientific risk assessment. It’s not yet decided if it should have a monitoring function. It will be composed of scientists.”

In January, details of the operation and powers of the authority were announced in the white paper on food safety. It proposed that the authority is involved in monitoring and surveillance across areas of public and animal health, information systems in the agricultural sector, rapid alert systems and research and development. All these will inform scientists who can in turn advise the industry and educate the consumer in the second function of the authority: risk communication.

The authority would enable scientific opinions to be made widely and rapidly available and provide easily accessible and understandable information relating to consumer health protection.

The responsibility for risk management – or enforcement – would stay with the EU. Any movement of powers away from their current base could dilute democratic accountability and necessitate a modification of the EU treaty. Whatever happens, if the legislation runs to timetable there will be a coherent system of monitoring and controls in the EU covering the entire food chain by 2002.