At its meeting in London today, the Food Standards Agency Board was updated on the preliminary finding of H5 avian flu in a swan in Scotland.
FSA Chair Deirdre Hutton reaffirmed that the Agency’s existing advice is not changed by this development, in line with the expert opinions of the World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the UK’s independent expert scientific advisers.
She said: ‘If you wish to eat poultry and eggs you should continue to do so, following the normal precautions of cooking thoroughly and by that we mean cooking until there are no red juices, or in the case of eggs, cooking until the white is hard. And that advice applies to cooking chickens generally, not just because of the possibility of avian flu.’
The Food Standards Agency considers that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers.
Currently, there are no confirmed cases of the avian flu virus (H5N1) in UK birds. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that in areas free from the disease, poultry and poultry products can be prepared and eaten as usual (following good hygiene practice and proper cooking), with no fear of acquiring infection.
Like the WHO, the FSA advises proper handling during food preparation. When handling raw poultry, the person involved in the food preparation should wash their hands thoroughly and clean surfaces and utensils in contact with the poultry products. Soap and hot water are sufficient for this purpose.
In countries where avian flu is present in poultry, the virus may be present in meat and eggs from affected birds. Controls in place are intended to stop the spread of the disease. Even if virus is present in meat or eggs, several factors will contribute to preventing or limiting its effects on people. First, the virus is easily killed by cooking. Second, even if it is still present after cooking, the virus is destroyed by saliva and by gastric acid, as well as the fact that there are very few receptors the virus needs to enter the body in the gut.
European Food Safety Authority
On 26 October 2005 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued advice on the importance of thoroughly cooking poultry and eggs.
This reiterates long-standing advice about cooking poultry and eggs thoroughly to kill bugs. EFSA, like the Agency, is not aware of any reports of people getting avian flu from eating poultry or eggs and recognises that the current risk is from people having contact with live birds that have the disease.
For people, the risk of catching the disease comes from being in close contact with live poultry that have the disease, and not through eating poultry or eggs. Poultry can include chicken, duck, goose, turkey and guinea fowl and so on.
Advisory Committee on Microbiological Safety of Food
The FSA asked the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF), which provides independent expert advice to Government on questions relating to microbiology and food, to consider recent developments since it last discussed avian, or bird, flu in 2003.
The ACMSF met in December 2005 to consider current information on avian flu and the conclusions from a recent meeting of influenza virologists and epidemiologists, which was chaired by Dr David Brown of the ACMSF. The review group examined current information on avian flu and its implications for foodborne transmission in the UK.
The committee concluded that the recent information on avian flu had not changed its current risk assessment and, following the meeting, the ACMSF’s advice therefore remains as follows:
‘The risk of acquiring avian influenza through the food chain is low, and there is no direct evidence to support this route of infection.
Evidence from human infection indicates that direct contact with infected birds is the main risk factor, and that consumption of infected chickens has not been identified as a risk factor.
‘Several factors will contribute to preventing or limiting infection following ingestion of viruses, including lack of appropriate receptors, and non-specific defences such as saliva or gastric acid. Proper cooking will destroy any virus present in meat or eggs.’
The Committee also proposed that a working group be established to keep a watching brief on developments.
Questions and answers
Is it safe to eat poultry meat and eggs?
On the basis of current scientific evidence, our advice is that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers. For people, the risk of catching the disease comes from being in close contact with live poultry that have the disease, and not through eating cooked poultry or eggs.
What evidence is this based on?
Our current advice is based upon the opinions of scientific experts around the world including advisers to the WHO, EFSA and the ACMSF. The FSA has monitored developments since avian flu was first reported in the Far East eight years ago. During that time, most human cases have had close contact with infected birds. We continue to monitor the most up-to-date information and evidence, as it becomes available. The FSA will keep an open mind as to any information that may lead to our advice being updated. However, current scientific opinion agrees that avian flu is not a food safety risk.
Are there measures in place to prevent infected poultry and eggs entering the food chain?
When an outbreak of avian flu occurs in wild birds or a poultry flock, the authorities are required to put in place controls that aim to prevent the spread of the disease. These controls will also mean it is unlikely that infected poultry or eggs will enter the food chain. The Agency has taken account of the low risk of infected products entering the food chain as it developed its advice for consumers and, even if avian flu were present in the UK, current FSA advice that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk to the UK consumer would still apply.
Are controls in place to stop poultry and eggs being imported from affected countries?
Controls are in place to prevent imports of live birds, poultry meat and eggs from several non-EU countries that are affected by avian flu. When an outbreak of avian flu occurs in wild birds or a poultry flock in an EU Member State, trade within the European Community may continue, but trade of poultry and poultry products from the affected parts of any Member State will be restricted to protect animal health. These controls will also mean it is very unlikely that infected poultry or eggs will enter the food chain in any affected non-EU country or EU Member State. The Agency has taken account of the low risk of infected products entering the food chain as it developed its advice for consumers, and current FSA advice that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk to the UK consumer would still apply.
How about touching uncooked poultry meat?
Our long standing advice is that you should always wash your hands after handling raw poultry meat and eggs to avoid contamination from any bugs. In countries where avian flu is present in poultry, this will also help prevent contamination with the virus.
Would cooking poultry and eggs properly kill the virus?
Cooking food thoroughly will kill bacteria and viruses. Our advice is that poultry and eggs should always be cooked properly to avoid food poisoning. Even if avian flu were present in the UK, current FSA advice on preparing, cooking and eating poultry meat and eggs would still apply.
People should follow the handling and cooking instructions for cooking poultry. If you’re cooking a whole chicken or other bird, pierce the thickest part of the leg (between drumstick and thigh) with a clean knife or skewer until the juices run clear. The juices shouldn’t have any pink or red in them and there should be no pink meat.
People should not eat raw eggs or use raw eggs in dishes that will not be cooked. Eggs should be cooked until the whites are solid.
Why does this advice differ from that of WHO?
The World Health Organisation advises the cooking of eggs until both yolks and whites are solid. The FSA have discussed this with WHO and they confirm that this advice is precautionary. Their advice on cooking eggs is relevant for all bacteria and viruses that may be present – for all parts of the world.
In the UK, independent expert advice has confirmed that it is not necessary to cook eggs until the yolks are hard to protect against exposure to the avian flu virus.
Is it safe to eat meat and eggs from vaccinated birds?
The vaccines used to vaccinate birds against avian flu do not pose any health concerns. This is provided a licensed vaccine with marketing authorisation is used, and the correct interval between vaccination and slaughter or date eggs are laid is observed.
There is no requirement for meat or eggs from vaccinated animals or birds to be labelled to indicate that they have been vaccinated.
Food Standards Agency, UK