Thursday, 17 May 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
169. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Minister for Health and Children if there is any connection in his opinion, between the increase in food poisoning involving poultry products and the modern methods of rearing of poultry in large units, using antibiotics to combat diseases inherent in such rearing conditions. [14499/01]
Minister for Health and Children (Mr. Martin): The incidence of food poisoning in Ireland fell between 1999 and 2000, from 1,673 to 1,552 cases and the incidence of salmonellosis fell from 962 to 635. In the period 1998-2000 the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, was aware of 49 outbreaks of foodborne illness, of these about 20% were associated with shell eggs and 16% with poultry-poultry products. Concern about these numbers of poultry product associated illnesses led the FSAI to initiate industry and public information campaigns, that focused on the prevention of foodborne illness caused by these products. Initiatives such as the egg quality assurance scheme, that was organised in co-operation with the Irish Egg Producers Association and Bord Bia, awareness campaigns highlighting the use of pasteurised liquid eggs in the catering and food processing sectors, and public media campaigns, have all contributed towards the reduction in the numbers of cases of illness associated with poultry products over the past year.
It is widely accepted that certain aspects of intensive farming can cause increased stress to animals thereby making them more susceptible to diseases. Antibiotics are used prophalactically to prevent disease as well as for treatment of animal diseases. They are also used as growth promoters in animal feeds. Recent scientific evidence links the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry and the development of antimicrobial resistance in pathogens that can be passed to humans in the food chain. The FSAI advises a cautious approach to the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and avoiding the use of antibiotics that are closely related to those used in human medicine.
A number of measures have been taken in order to control the level of disease in poultry flocks. There is a salmonella control programme operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development where poultry breeding flocks are slaughtered if they become infected with salmonella.
170. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Minister for Health and Children the number of chickens on sale in shops that have been tested for campylobactes; if his attention has been drawn to United States surveys which suggest that only one in ten cases of campylobactes poisoning among humans are notified to the authority; and if he intends to introduce any further measures to combat this health threat. [14500/01]
Minister for Health and Children (Mr. Martin): My Department and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, have been aware of growing national and international concerns regarding the increase of food poisoning caused by campylobacter species, camplobacteriosos. In December 1999, the FSAI prepared a brief report for its Microbiology Sub-Committee. This report presented the facts and highlighted the gaps in knowledge. Last year the sub-committee convened a working group to examine the issues in detail and identify initiatives to combat this public health concern. The report from the FSAI will be published later this year.
Prior to the establishment of the Food Safety Promotion Board, the FSAI conducted a number of media campaigns directed at making the consumer aware of how to combat food poisoning. Currently the FSAI is focusing its attention on improving standards of hygiene within the food industry. In 2000, over 10,000 food samples were taken under the national microbiological sampling programme that is co-ordinated by the FSAI, at retail and catering level. Some 2,320 of these were chicken samples. Some 789 chicken samples were specifically analysed for the presence of campylobacter of which 16.6% were found to be positive.
Last year the FSAI in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development commenced an enhanced poultry monitoring scheme. Over 3,000 samples of raw poultry, including domestic and imported product, were analysed during 2000 and approximately 54% of samples were positive for Camplyobacter. The poultry isolates and human isolates, from the same time period, are currently being characterised in detail, in order to determine the relationship between handling-consuming contaminated poultry and human illness. Unlike many of the other food pathogens, campylobacter does not tend to cause outbreaks but more frequently results in sporadic illness. This pattern of illness greatly hinders identification of a food vehicle. Hence the above comparison will enable the FSAI to determine if the campylobacter isolates in poultry are the same as those causing illness in humans. This study will also examine the level of antibiotic resistance in Irish campylobacter isolates.
In the UK it has been calculated that for every 136 cases of infectious intestinal disease in the community, only one gets reported at the national surveillance level. This ratio for campylobacter was estimated to be one case reported for every 7.6 cases of illness. In Ireland, campylobacter is not a notifiable disease under the infectious disease regulations. Recognising the lack of national surveillance, the National Disease Surveillance Centre, NDSC, undertook a study to  establish the number of laboratory confirmed cases of campylobacteriosis. The study found that during 1999, the Irish clinical laboratories confirmed 2,085 cases of campyloacteriosis. In its interim report published in August 2000, the NDSC states that “the data reveals a crude incidence rate of 57.5 cases per 100,000 persons, making it the single biggest cause of bacterial food-poisoning in Ireland. This compares with a rate of 51/100,000 in Northern Ireland, 104.9 in England and Wales and 116 in Scotland. It must be reiterated that these are laboratory confirmed cases and the real burden of illness is higher.”
The NDSC is examining the best way to reform the infectious disease regulations in order to improve surveillance at national level. In addition, the FSAI is currently involved in an all-island telephone survey to estimate the level of food poisoning in the population. This survey is being co-ordinated by a steering committee comprising the NDSC, the Department of Public Health Medicine and Epidemiology, University College Dublin, the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland, the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre Northern Ireland, and the recently established Food Safety Promotion Board.
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