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Eggs: the benefits of buying British

20 June 2006

The call to ban imported eggs to prevent caterers giving their customers a dose of salmonella poisoning smacks of scaremongering and is unlikely to be enforced. However, switching to British Lion-branded eggs would bring a host of local benefits, argues Diana Spellman, managing director of catering buying consultant Partners in Purchasing.

Switching the sourcing of eggs in the UK to the British Lion brand would benefit local farmers, reduce food miles and set new standards in poultry welfare throughout Europe.

The British Egg Industry Council is calling for a compulsory ban on imports following revelations about salmonella contamination in European chicken eggs in a report released by the European Food Safety authority last week.

Caterers, shops and retailers, hospitals and schools were identified as being the most vulnerable to infected eggs because they are the key consumers of cheap imports from Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic, where 50%-65% of producers register contamination.

An imported egg is less than 1p cheaper than a locally-sourced egg. The higher-cost salmonella prevention programme established in the interests of the health of the British public is being undermined by these cheaper alternatives available through flexible trading with European community partners.

If the bans on imported eggs were applied, egg prices would rise in the short term to compensate for a 15% shortfall in supply, then drop back over a period of six months to one year while poultry producers met the demand.

The release of information in 1988 by MP Edwina Currie prompted the British Egg industry to reduce salmonella to the lowest levels in Europe and the infection now occurs in only 8%-12% of UK poultry houses.

The British Lion scheme, launched by farmers eight years ago at a cost of £36m, introduced stringent production controls which include the vaccination of chicks. Labelling regulations ensure that eggs are fully traceable to their origin.

Eggs cooked beyond 61°C destroy the heat-sensitive bacteria but few are likely to recognize the state of the egg at this temperature.

Fears that disease will spread via raw egg-based sauces are unfounded, with a choice of 365 ready-made options available.

Hospitals are used to receiving the brickbat of opinion. However, best practice in this sector dictates that all eggs nominated by the NHS are Lion Brand products. Employees who buy off-list bear the risk of prosecution in the event of an outbreak.

The vast majority of eggs absorbed into the catering sector are pasteurised as a liquid egg ingredient for recipe dishes or hard-boiled for sandwich production. This includes hospitals, schools and the prison service.

Alleged outbreaks due to salmonella have dropped from 6, 000 in 2002 to just 200 in 2006. The outcry therefore smacks of scaremongering, with the finger neatly pointed at "the catering sector" where statistics are hard to quantify.

The call to ban imported eggs is as much about setting a level playing field for the production costs of poultry and egg producers across Europe as it is about risks to the consumer.

The ban is unlikely to be carried as it flies in the face of European trading agreements with members such as Germany and the northern states that have equally stringent controls as the UK.

Imports from China, however, would be unwise with more reported avian flu cases seeping through.

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