Dr Pat Blackall, Principal Research Fellow with Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (at The University of Queensland), manages the Safe and Quality Food Production program for the Poultry CRC. This program’s major challenge, as its name suggests, is to maximise food quality and safety for consumers of poultry products. Food safety is a key issue for all food industries – OzFoodNet reported that cases of food-borne illness in 2010 represented a cost to the Australian economy in the vicinity of 1.2 billion dollars.
Pat explained the concept behind this program, “In the onset of the second round Poultry CRC, the major concerns for industry in terms of food safety were identified as Campylobacter and Salmonella, for meat and egg producers respectively”. Indeed, of the 30,035 reported cases of food-borne illness in 2010, a staggering 96% of these were attributed to either Campylobacter (16,968) or Salmonella (11,992) (OzFoodNet).
For the chicken meat sector, industry requested that the CRC concentrate on on-farm aspects of Campylobacter, rather than the subsequent processing aspects. The rationale was for a co-ordinated approach with the other major funding arm – the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation Chicken Meat Program – to enable the two bodies to work together on an overall control program. “It’s a difficult ask”, says Pat, “To date no-one has really got interventions on the farm that industry finds very acceptable. For instance, there is some nice research overseas that found you can have a significant impact on Campylobacter colonisation in flocks if you can flyscreen the sheds.” However, this type of intervention may prove non-practical, or difficult to implement and maintain. Pat also notes that this research was conducted under overseas conditions, which may not readily translate to Australia.
Simple and practical intervention strategies have proved difficult to deliver, primarily due to Campylobacter being endemic in the environment. However a number of ongoing CRC research projects into Campylobacter are attracting industry interest. Two such projects are Dr Gireesh Rajashekara’s Small molecule inhibitors as anti-Campylobacter jejuni agents and Dr Rob Moore’s Vaccine to reduce Campylobacter colonisation in meat chickens.
According to Pat, results for the egg industry sector have been very positive, with the CRC producing “very practical projects with very practical outcomes for industry”. Three such projects, Dr Margaret Sexton’s Egg washing – Improving efficacy and safety to optimise profitability (now completed), Associate Professor Julie Robert’s Eggshell quality and risks of food borne pathogens and Dr Kapil Chousalker’s Epidemiology of Salmonella on layer farms are resulting in real-world applications. As is the case with Campylobacter, Salmonella is naturally prevalent in the environment, so controlling this pathogen on-farm is difficult.
In addition to the aforementioned projects Pat said, “A number of our student research projects are intrinsically linked to these major projects, and these will increase our understanding of situations, and our capacity to deal with these key pathogens”. More information about these projects can be found on the Poultry CRC and Poultry Hub websites.
Both the chicken meat industry and the egg industry have active public education programs to inform the wider community about food safety. “Responsibility lies throughout the chain” said Pat. Poultry producers and processors take many steps to minimise risks of food-borne illness causing pathogens, but without responsible food handling by consumers the chain is broken.
The poultry industry has worked hard with Government to ensure that food safety regulations governing the production of poultry are practical and relevant. Industry is committed to producing safe and high quality food products, “and they do their very best to deliver that type of product”, said Pat. For instance, the introduction of Standard 4.2.2 – Primary Production and Processing Standard for Poultry Meat in May 2012 has been embraced by the poultry industry, which accepts the industry role of ensuring contamination risks are minimised.
Outputs from the Poultry CRC’s Safe and Quality Food Production research program will ultimately enhance the capacity of industry to minimise risks commonly associated with poultry products.