A series of Salmonella outbreaks in the United Kingdom caused by breaded chicken products from Poland could have affected up to 5,000 people, officials have revealed.

The UK-wide outbreaks resulted in more than 1,000 confirmed illnesses in 2020 and 2021 with potentially as many as 4,000 additional cases which were not confirmed or reported.

The incident also cost an estimated £7.7 million ($9.6 million), according to a document detailing the UK Government’s plans to introduce checks on imports from October 2023, under its Border Target Operating Model.

Salmonella and chicken incident
The first warning came in October 2020 when almost 400 people were sick in a Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak involving several strains. Many people needed hospital treatment and four died. However, it was not known whether Salmonella infection contributed to the deaths.

Concerns about the safety of frozen, breaded, raw chicken products led the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to look at the prevalence of Salmonella, E. coli and antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in items such as nuggets, dippers and goujons, at retail in the UK.

Overall, 310 samples were tested between April and July 2021, and Salmonella was detected five times. Another study by Public Health England, now UKHSA, in 2020 found Salmonella in 40 of 456 samples of chicken products on retail sale.

Data from the later study suggests a decline in contamination rates in these products between 2020 and 2021. Affected supermarkets changed suppliers, which at least partially explains the improved results, as contamination was linked to only a few producers.

Between May 2018 and December 2020, nearly 100 patients were also reported in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. One in five was hospitalized and one person died.

Wider issues
The draft Border Target Operating Model introduces sanitary, phytosanitary and security controls on imports. These are aimed at protecting public health, delivering food that is safe whilst maintaining security of supply for consumers, and disrupting criminal activity before it can cause harm.

The current approach will be replaced with a more targeted, risk-based system that uses evidence and data. The frequency of controls will be based on the risk from the product and country of origin. This will be implemented between the end of October this year and Oct. 31, 2024. Phytosanitary certificates will be digitized from 2023 with take-up depending on trade partners’ readiness.

The first milestone in October 2023 will introduce health certification on medium-risk animal products, such as meat, dairy, fish and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin imported from the EU.

Risks from inadequate controls were described as “significant” with one example showing recent routine inspection of shops by local authorities in the UK had detected frozen, raw and uncooked meat products marked as suitable only for sale in the EU country of origin.

Further investigations found the products had been purchased by two importers, linked to more than 280 retail outlets in the UK. Items were exported commercially and pre-notified on the UK imports system. Although products didn’t test positive for African Swine Fever, the fact that they reached the UK was a “serious and immediate threat” to the pig industry.

Government officials said the goods would not have made it to the UK if Sanitary and Phytosanitary controls had been in place because they would not have been certified for export by a veterinarian in the originating country.

“This is the first we have heard of this, and we are, to say the least, alarmed and shocked, but not altogether surprised. We have been saying for a number of years now that the government’s refusal to impose proper checks on EU meat imports poses a massive and unacceptable risk to the UK pork sector,” said Lizzie Wilson, National Pig Association chief executive. 

“This is clear proof of that, as set out by the government, which has admitted that this lack of controls means meat that has not been properly inspected and could, therefore, spark a devastating African Swine Fever outbreak in the UK has potentially been sold in numerous retail outlets in this country.” 

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