Polish chicken imports may be banned as salmonella cases rise

ITV News Science Correspondent Martin Stew and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Investigative Journalist Andrew Wasley report on the widespread safety concern

One in nine portions of chicken we eat and around 340 million eggs are imported from Poland.

UK food safety chiefs are so worried about rising salmonella infections from imports they're considering a ban on some poultry products from the country.

Salmonella is a bacterial infection which causes diarrhoea, vomiting and, in rare extreme cases, can even be fatal.

In a letter sent to Poland's chief veterinary inspectorate in December, officials said they were concerned about the failure to tackle the disease in contaminated meat and eggs exported to the UK.

"Owing to the significant public health risks, we are considering the options available to us to protect UK consumers," the Food Standards Agency (FSA) chief executive Emily Miles and the UK's chief vet Christine Middlemiss wrote.

They said they would consider "potential for safeguard measures on affected products".

The letter, obtained by ITV News and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, highlighted at least 2,680 human infections and several deaths linked to polish products in recent years.

British farmers are worried further outbreaks of Salmonella could destroy public trust in poultry.

In 1988, 400 million eggs were destroyed and four million hens culled after Edwina Currie, then a health minister, said: "We do warn people now that most of the egg production in this country is now infected with Salmonella."

William Maughan keeps 30,000 free range hens near Darlington. Like all British farmers his birds are vaccinated against salmonella. He believes imports should be banned if they don't match British standards.

He said: "I think if they can't demonstrate that then yes I think there is a strong case that they should be stopped.

"It is a human health risk and, if in the worst case scenario, you get an outbreak it's about a loss of confidence and a lack of confidence in eating eggs."

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Records seen by ITV News reveal that some of the salmonella strains responsible for recent illnesses in the UK and Europe were resistant to antibiotics classified as "critically important" to human health by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Such superbugs could mean serious cases of food poisoning are harder to treat.

The findings come as Poland's use of veterinary antibiotics has continued to soar, despite ongoing concerns about the health impacts of the overuse of such drugs in livestock production.

Sales of some classes of critically important antibiotics increased in 2022, in contrast to other European Union (EU) countries, which have curtailed use on farms.

Richard Griffiths, the chief executive of the British Poultry Council (BPC) said that the connection between antibiotic-resistant salmonella and contaminated products from Poland "raises serious concerns".

Some of the infected Polish chicken was resistant to ciprofloxacin, meaning that the critically important drug could not kill the salmonella infection.

Other salmonella linked to the outbreak was found to harbour genes that showed resistance to colistin.

Poland's use of veterinary antibiotics in its poultry production has continued to grow rapidly. Credit: ITV News

Anjali Juneja, Director of UK and International Affairs at the FSA said: "Consumer safety is our highest priority, and the FSA takes all necessary steps to protect public health. Engagement with the Polish authorities has meant that action has been taken to improve the safety and compliance of poultry meat and eggs imported from Poland and we have seen a recent decline in notifications linked to this incident.

"The FSA continues to work with authorities in the UK and Poland to monitor the situation and protect consumers.

"Should the number of incidents increase or show any other data of concern, we will take the necessary action. This includes controls on specific importers and additional testing by the exporting authorities.

"The risk of Salmonella remains low as long as consumers follow good food hygiene, handling and cooking practices."

Poland's Chief Veterinary Inspectorate said there was no conclusive evidence indicating that products originating from Poland were the source of three Salmonella outbreaks reported by the EU alert system last year.

Due to there being different end producers who, in turn, have their own meat suppliers, "the participation of other entities operating on the food market as sources of infection cannot be confirmed or excluded", it told TBIJ.

The body added that it adheres to EU regulations with respect to Salmonella and antimicrobial resistance, and cooperates with UK authorities on food poisoning investigations.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) echoed the Polish chief vet in saying that the lack of conclusive evidence, comprehensive traceability, and the possible involvement of other food companies in the relevant outbreaks meant their original source couldn't be confirmed.

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