Egg safety centre aims to boost industry profile

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Salmonella, Foodborne illness

A new egg safety centre in the US could help ensure that health
scares associated with eggs and low public confidence are far less
common in the future.

The Agricultural Research Service's new Egg Safety and Quality Research Unit, based at the Richard B. Russell Research Center, will conduct research designed to protect both the health of consumers and the marketability of eggs. Scientists hope to develop improved technologies for egg production and processing that will reduce or eliminate microorganisms that can transmit disease to humans or cause spoilage.

Such discoveries would be vital to the egg industry. Outbreaks of salmonellosis, a pathogen found in eggs, have been reported for decades, but in the past 25 years the disease has increased in incidence on many continents. In the Western hemisphere and in Europe, Salmonella serotype Enteritidis (SE) has become the predominant strain.

An outbreak of Salmonella bacteria can cost manufacturers millions in terms of product recalls, lawsuits and loss of consumer confidence. And while most foodborne diseases are sporadic and often not reported, foodborne disease outbreaks can sometimes take on massive proportions.

In the UK for example, the local egg industry is still recovering from wide outbreaks of Salmonella enteritidis that were reported in the 1980s. Recent trends in global food production, processing, distribution and preparation are creating an increasing demand for food safety research in order to ensure a safer global food supply.

One of the unit's key research goals therefore will be to determine how microbial pathogens infect poultry and cause egg contamination. Additionally, scientists will investigate how poultry production practices can influence such infections.

Researchers will develop methods to prevent pathogens from infecting egg-laying poultry, and tests to detect infected flocks and contaminated eggs. Ultimately, the research may also help improve egg processing practices, which could reduce microbial contamination while enhancing egg quality.

A working group on salmonella infection at the US government FoodNet body claimed in 1999 that estimated annual costs (in 1998 dollars) of medical care and lost productivity due to foodborne Salmonella infections were $0.5 billion (€0.4bn), based on the human capital approach for calculating forgone earnings. Using the less conservative labour market approach, the total annual costs were $2.3 billion (1.85bn).

Eggs are a vital ingredient in many sectors of food production. In 2003, an estimated 87.2 billion eggs were produced in the United States alone, with about 85 per cent of them destined for human consumption, according to figures from USDA's Economic Research Service.

Per capita consumption of eggs and egg products in 2003 was the equivalent of 254 eggs, an increase of 19 eggs per person from 1990, ERS estimated.

And in the UK, recent research suggests that premium eggs are a key growing sector. Analyst Mintel found that while volume sales have risen by 10 per cent between 1999 and 2003, value sales have increased by double this amount, some 23 per cent, due to consumers trading up to premium egg varieties.

The trade up to higher-priced eggs - free range and organic - suggests overall health concerns are driving the market. In 2003 free-range eggs accounted for 30 per cent of egg sales by volume compared to just 24 per cent in 1998, representing a 38 per cent rise in sales since 1998.

ARS​ is the US department of agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

Related topics: R&D

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