Having the job of protecting the food chain from disease is like being an air traffic controller: no one notices when you do it right, but as soon as something goes wrong, and there is an outbreak of food poisoning or airplane crash, everyone is aware.
Fortunately, both foodborne outbreaks and airplane crashes are very rare occurrences in Europe, thanks mainly to the hard work and attention paid by individuals whose efforts the public rarely notice. Protecting animal feed from bacteria is a prime example of a vital part of ensuring food safety that most people never think about. Feed is one of the main sources of infection for diseases such as Salmonella, and without assiduous care from farmers, poultry, eggs and feed producers, an outbreak is a very real danger. Feed producers and farmers take this risk very seriously, and in Europe we have been extremely successful in cutting down Salmonella over the last 20 years. Between 2004 and 2008 we cut Salmonella rates in half. This is without doubt one of the greatest public health successes in Europe, and one that most people will have never heard about.
The reduction in Salmonella was achieved by using a variety of tools for pathogen control. One of these tools, and without doubt the most effective for protecting animal feed from Salmonella infection, is the chemical formaldehyde. This organic chemical, naturally found in fruits such as pears, can be dangerous in large quantities. However, when used correctly it provides incredible protection against Salmonella in animal feed. Its use is perfectly safe for consumers, and is supported by agencies including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the US Food and Safety Administration (FDA). As with other chemicals, workers handling the substance have to take safety precautions. This is supported by the Commission’s own worker safety body (SCOEL), which sets safe exposure limits for formaldehyde and gives guidance on its safe use. Moreover, companies and producers, who use disinfectants containing formaldehyde in the production of bird feed, have excluded direct and prolonged contact with this substance, as all the formaldehyde addition process takes place in a closed system. The way formaldehyde is used does not endanger health of workers or animals.
Despite the importance of formaldehyde in fighting Salmonella, the European Commission last year put forward a proposal to ban the substance. We have made these concerns very clear to the European Commission. In December, associations of poultry and egg farmers and feed producers from around Europe came together to sign an open letter to Commission Phil Hogan, entreating him not to remove this vital tool for protecting the food chain from infection. Many of us also took part in a public consultation run by the Commission in December, and submitted extensive feedback and evidence detailing the importance of formaldehyde in protecting the food chain.
All of our efforts, however, were ignored by the institution. Our letter went unanswered, and within 12 hours of the public consultation closing the Commission had already taken the vote to ban formaldehyde in animal feed. We cannot understand how our feedback, which included almost 100 extensive submissions with technical annexes, could have been taken into account in this time, and are left wondering whether the consultation itself was just a rubber-stamping exercise.
Despite the success of farmers bringing down rates of Salmonella, the danger again seems to be on the rise. The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) in December revealed that Salmonella cases increased last year, and that the long-term trend of decreasing Salmonella prevalence in Europe has officially come to an end. This comes amid large scale outbreaks of Salmonella in Poland and in feed in Germany.
The next time there is an outbreak of Salmonella, and people again become marginally aware of the process involved in keeping our food safe, the blame will be placed at the door of the farmers and producers who work invisibly day in, day out to prevent outbreaks. People will say that we should have done more, taken more precautions. Perhaps when this happens, people can also bear in mind how difficult this job has become since our politicians decided to take away our most effective tools to protect the food chain, for their own partisan reasons.