A regulatory effort to reduce Salmonella contamination throughout Ireland's food chain is beginning to pay off in the egg sector.
New research finds eggs produced on the island of Ireland are almost totally free from Salmonella.
Just two egg samples from over 5,000 samples surveyed contained Salmonella in the shell. None of the egg contents were found to be contaminated, said Safefood, a government agency created to promote food safety in Ireland.
The work on eggs, and the poultry sector, is an attempt to prevent Salmonella at the front end of the supply chain, and provides a measure of reassurance to processors about their ingredients.
Poultry and eggs are a primary source of Salmonella infections in humans and regulators have focused on bringing down the rate in the sector as a means of reducing the health risk.
Martin Higgins, Safefood's chief executive, said the study looked at the prevalence of Salmonella in eggs on the island of Ireland and compared two approaches to Salmonella control, which were introduced after the rise in Salmonella Enteritidis during the 1980s.
In Northern Ireland, a vaccination regime was adopted, while in the Ireland, controls based on routine monitoring for Salmonella and subsequent culling of infected flocks was introduced.
The study found that both methods are equally effective in controlling salmonellas, he said.
For the study researchers from Queen's University Belfast, UCD and Strathclyde University analysed over 5,000 samples of six varieties of eggs from flocks north and south of the border.
They examined about 30,000 eggs in total. The survey yielded only two positive samples, with Salmonella infantis and Salmonella montevideo isolated from shells.
No egg contents yielded salmonellas. The prevalence was significantly lower than the findings in a recent major UK survey.
"The results of this study show that the two methods for controlling Salmonella on the island of Ireland are equally effective in reducing the prevalence in eggs," said Higgins. "Infections from Salmonella in the human population are therefore unlikely to result from eating eggs that have been produced on the island of Ireland."
Ireland is one of four EU member states that have an EU approved Salmonella reduction plan. The other three are Sweden, Finland and Denmark.
Under the plan all poultry farms in Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Denmark are tested and monitored by regulators. Any flocks with confirmed infections are slaughtered immediately.
Ireland's table egg laying industry also created a voluntary egg quality assurance scheme with increased Salmonella prevention controls.
The code of practice lays down quality assurance requirements that must be followed by the whole egg industry, from producer to packer, and covers all aspects of egg production including hygiene, disease control and flock welfare.
The scheme was put in place due to the high number number of human cases of Salmonella enteritidis, which rose dramatically during the 1980s. This was followed by the introduction of legislation, industry codes of practice and quality assurance schemes to control Salmonella in laying flocks.
The scheme resulted in a decrease in the incidence of Salmonella in Great Britain and on the island of Ireland.
Last August last year the European Commission set targets for member states to meet in reducing the presence of Salmonella in poultry, and has proposed trade bans on eggs from flocks with persistent high levels of the pathogen. The Commission said it is also looking into the possibility of introducing a trade ban on eggs from Salmonella infected flocks as soon as possible.
The regulations are part of the overall EU strategy to reduce food borne diseases and is line with a timetable for drawing up Salmonella reduction targets for different animal species, which were set out in a 2003 regulation on zoonoses.
The new regulation on laying hens should lead to less Salmonella contamination in eggs, the Commission said in publishing the regulations. Every member state will have to work towards reducing the number of laying hens infected with Salmonella by a specific minimum percentage each year, with steeper targets for those with higher levels of the pathogen.
The first target deadline for incremental reduction falls in 2008. The ultimate target is to achieve a reduction in Salmonella levels to two per cent or less.
According to an updated European survey published earlier this month, Salmonella infects one in four chickens in flocks reared for meat.
While Swedish poultry was found to be clear of the pathogen, the highest contamination rate was in Hungary at 68.2 per cent, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Tests found that the two most common forms of salmonella responsible for illness, enteritidis and typhimurium, were detected in about 11 per cent of flocks.
A high prevalence of salmonella was found in Poland at 58.2 per cent, Portugal at 43.5 per cent and Spain at 41.2 per cent.
In France, Europe's largest broiler producer, 6.2 per cent of samples tested positive for salmonella, while the second largest, the UK, had a rate of 8.2 per cent.
Infection rates in Finland and Norway were low at 0.1 per cent, while Europe's smallest producer in the survey, Estonia, had a two per cent rate.
EFSA found the average salmonella infection rate was 23.7 per cent in broiling chicken across Europe.
The survey aims to provide the Commission with a basis to set reduction targets, which are due to published by July 2007.
The survey was conducted on commercial holdings with more than 5,000 broilers between 1 October 2005 and 30 September 2006. Statistics for Estonia and Latvia relate to smaller flocks of below 5,000.
A total of 7,440 flocks on 6,325 holdings were included in the results of the survey. Faeces taken from the flocks within three weeks before slaughter was due were tested for the salmonella.
A flock was considered positive if salmonella or the specific serovar was detected in at least one of the five samples taken, while a holding was defined to be positive when at least one flock was affected.
The report follows an EFSA study, published in June 2006, which found about one in five of the EU's large scale commercial egg producers have laying hens infected with the Salmonella spp. pathogen.
A study on zoonoses by EFSA in 2005 reported that up to 18 per cent of raw fresh chicken meat samples were contaminated with salmonella.
By far the most frequently reported zoonotic diseases in humans are salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis, with the most deadly being listerious, according to a European Commission study published last year.
The study found there were 192,703 reported cases of salmonellosis and 183,961 of campylobacteriosis cases reported during 2004 in the EU's 25 member states.
The cases are out of a total of 400, 000 human cases of zoonoses reported. Most of the cases were foodborne and associated with mild to severe intestinal problems.
The EU's new zoonoses directive 2003/99/EC became effective 12 June 2004. Reporting according to the new rules started with data collected during 2005.
Zoonoses are diseases, which are transmissible from animals to humans. The infection can be acquired directly from animals, or through ingestion of contaminated foodstuffs. The seriousness of these diseases in humans can vary from mild symptoms to life threatening conditions.
Within the EU there are 714 million broilers in 282,221 flocks across 24,630 commercial holdings with over 5,000 birds, including those surveyed in Latvia and Estonia, according to EFSA for 2005. On the same basis, Norway adds about nine million broilers to the study figures.