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EFSA Perspectives on Microbial Safety of Beef

13 July 2009

EFSA was established in order to provide scientific advice and technical support for legislation and policies in all fields which have a direct or indirect impact on food and feed safety, Marta Hugas and Ernesto Liebana, from the Biological Hazards Unit of the European Food Safety Authority told the Advancing Beef Safety through Research and Innovation international conference organised by ProSafeBeef. EFSA has the pivotal role in food safety risk assessment, and risk communication.

The Scientific Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) deals with questions on hazards of biological nature related to food safety, food-borne diseases (FBD) including transmissible spongiform encephalopaties, food microbiology and waste management.

The work the BIOHAZ panel has carried out in the field of meat hygiene / safety (excluding BSE/TSE issues) could be further classified in several categories: relevant to (1) meat hygiene inspection, (2) microbiological meat hygiene, (3) decontamination treatments at slaughter level, (4) interface of animal welfare and food safety, and (5) food as a source of antimicrobial resistance.

With reference to inspection after slaughter, the BIOHAZ Panel has answered mandates on the revision of meat inspection protocols for beef and veal, with an emphasis on hazards such as Mycobacterium bovis and Cysticercus, and in particular in reference to the subject of risk-based meat inspection without incisions.

The Panel also worked on a self-task to provide an overview of different concepts in the area of microbiological criteria and targets in the food chain (Food Safety Criteria and Process Hygiene Criteria). The conclusion was that these criteria are useful for validation and verification of HACCP-based processes.

The original source of pathogens that presently cause most human FBD are farm animals that show no symptoms of illness, but which are fecal shedders.

The main food-borne hazards associated with bovine farming are Salmonella spp., human pathogenic-verotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC), thermophilic Campylobacter spp., Taenia saginata cysticercus and Cryptosporidium parvum / Giardia duodenalis. Although various foods can serve as sources of FBD, meat and meat products are an important source of human infections. In the EU in 2007, reported percentages of fresh bovine meat samples positive for the main microbial food-borne pathogens were: Campylobacter 0-2.4 per cent, Salmonella 0-6.7 per cent and VTEC 0-2.8 per cent. Data reported to EFSA in 2006 indicated that “unspecified” meat products were implicated in 6.7 per cent of the salmonellosis outbreaks, with only 1 outbreak reported as due to bovine meat; “unspecified” meat products were implicated in 23 per cent campylobacter outbreaks; and beef was implicated in 6.3 per cent of VTEC outbreaks.

Understanding in quantitative terms of the importance of meat and meat products (including beef) compared with other types of food, and other possible sources is quite limited.

The BIOHAZ Panel has recently published an opinion on source attribution, and the benefits and drawbacks of different techniques (i.e. outbreak investigations, epidemiological investigations, microbiological typing, mathematical modelling of relative exposures and expert opinions) that can be considered for such attribution studies.

The BIOHAZ Panel has also adopted opinions on the relationship between welfare of cattle and food safety. It is generally considered that provision of optimal animal welfare leads to a reduction of the food safety risks associated with the resulting foods of animal origin. However, some on-farm practices beneficial for animal welfare, may increase risks of a greater survival rate of, and/or exposure to, and/or spread of, foodborne pathogens in farm animals.

Further research on the quantitative relationship between on-farm factors affecting animal welfare, on one hand, and any food safety hazards associated with the resulting carcasses, on the other, should be encouraged in order to facilitate and improve quantitative risk assessment in the context of the meat chain.

Emerging of resistance to important antimicrobials (AMR) [such as quinolones, extended-spectrum cephalosporins, and meticillin] amongst zoonotic and/or human pathogens is a public health concern, foodborne aspects of which have been recently evaluated in a BIOHAZ opinion. The opinion concluded that the present extent of exposure via food to AMR bacteria was found to be difficult to determine, and the role of food in the transfer of resistance genes insufficiently studied.

Nevertheless, foodborne bacteria, including known pathogens and commensal bacteria, display an increasing, extensive and diverse range of resistance to antimicrobial agents of human and veterinary importance, and any further spread of resistance among bacteria in foods is likely to have an influence on human exposure.

In the case of Salmonella, contaminated beef is prominent in this regard. Also, cattle are a major VTEC reservoir, and resistant strains may colonize humans via contaminated bovine meat more commonly than from other foods. In addition, beef appears to be a source of human exposure for cephalosporin resistance.

Animal-derived products (including bovine meat) remain a potential source of meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Food-associated MRSA, therefore, may be an emerging problem that is currently being addressed by the BIOHAZ Panel in a self-mandate.


July 2009

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