Chicken meat from Brazil is being investigated as the source of Salmonella illnesses in the Netherlands.

Between the end of 2019 and mid-February 2020, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) identified a cluster of six Salmonella Virchow infections distributed across the country using whole genome sequencing (WGS) but no epidemiological link among them was reported.

An outbreak investigation by RIVM and the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) identified six food isolates as genetically closely related to cases and associated with the source of the infection.

These isolates came from poultry meat, including frozen poultry imported from Brazil. Core genome multilocus sequence typing (cgMLST) showed five isolates were obtained in 2019 and one from Brazil in 2018. Origin and distribution of the other five poultry meat isolates is not clear but are thought to be within the Netherlands. A NVWA spokeswoman said the investigation of the source was still ongoing.

INFOSAN involvement
The International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) has been involved since mid-March through the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) portal and was also informed that Brazilian authorities were aware of the outbreak and investigating with the manufacturer.

“In April, the INFOSAN Secretariat engaged with the INFOSAN Emergency Contact Point (ECP) in Brazil to seek further details to assist on the risk assessment of this food safety incident, specifically to determine if the implicated products are frozen ready-to-eat (RTE) or pre-cooked chicken meat products. The ECP in Brazil has confirmed that they are investigating the incident and will share the requested information with us as soon as this becomes available,” said Peter Karim Ben Embarek.

“Based on this information, we will determine if there is a need for us to seek more details with the Netherlands on the results of their investigation and Brazil for any potential international distribution of implicated products. We usually don’t get involved when the implicated products are raw animal meat products, because in principle these products shouldn’t be consumed raw.”

According to information on the RASFF portal, frozen chicken meat from Brazil came via Austria and was also distributed to Spain.

Past record
In 2018, the European Commission stopped certain plants of BRF S.A. and SHB S.A. in Brazil from importing poultry meat into Europe. This regulation is still in force.

From March 2017, member states notified the Commission, through the RASFF, of a number of non-compliances due to Salmonella in poultry meat coming from several sites in Brazil. In March 2018, according to Brazilian authorities, cases of fraud were found in the country concerning laboratory certification for meat products exported to Europe.

The issue of EU restrictions on poultry meat from Brazil due to Salmonella has been raised at least four times since 2017 at meetings of the World Trade Organization.

Prevalence of Salmonella in poultry meat consignments from Brazil at the EU border was close to 8 percent in 2017. Levels were last calculated in November 2019 and it was 3.8 percent out of 9,968 samples from March 2017 to November 2019, but no information on strains is available.

A poultry meat audit in May 2017 by EU officials in Brazil identified critical issues and led to reinforced checks and suspension of listing new establishments for export. In January 2018, the follow up audit identified progress but made further recommendations.

Another poultry meat public health audit was planned for 2019 but was postponed to 2020. However due to the COVID-19 crisis, it is not clear when it will take place. The Commission also planned an animal health audit on poultry coming from Brazil in 2020 but this faces the same planning difficulties.

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