The European regulations require that the meat industry monitor the hygiene and food safety of their products by bacterial tests. The methods of sampling and analyzing are (almost) optional. This means that there are many methods used and it is difficult to compare results between abattoirs and countries. The reference method is "destructive" sampling of warm carcasses (cut out a piece of the surface) and analyze for Enterobacteriaceae. Many abattoirs use different types of swab methods instead (scrubbing of the surface) because it is faster and does not destroy the carcass. In Norway and Denmark (and in the United States), mainly cold carcasses are sampled, and it is analyzed for E. coli as the indicator bacteria for fecal contamination, that is, contamination from the intestines.
The main objective of the Hygenea project is to ensure that investments and targeted hygiene efforts in the abattoirs will give maximum effect to food safety. Different sampling methods are compared and the hygiene of 20 European abattoirs is being investigated. The project name Hygenea is chosen from the Norse name "Enea" which means Europe, meaning hygiene in Europe. The project consists of five work packages.
In the first work package, the five most common sampling methods were compared, and the reference method of excision was one of them. It was carried out in a laboratory with inoculated bacteria to minimize inequalities and sources of error. Both Enterobacteriaceae and E. coli were analyzed. The reference method gave the highest recovery of bacteria, and swabbing with a gas cloth gave also a high recovery. This cloth-swab method was chosen for the survey in 20 abattoirs in work package 2. A scientific article is published in Food Protection Trends.
In work package 2, eight Norwegian and a selection of abattoirs in Germany, England, Spain, and Denmark were visited. Sampling of warm carcasses by cloth swab method was compared with the abattoirs' own routine sampling. In addition, a visual assessment of the slaughtering hygiene was carried out by the "Hygiene Audit" scheme. This audit is developed in Norway and used in Norwegian abattoirs for the last 10 years. Each operation along the slaughter line is accessed hygienically and a score is given. Total score ranges from 0% to 100%, where 100% is perfect hygiene. This overall score was compared to the bacterial level found on the carcasses, and a high compliance with the cloth swab method was found. A poorer compliance was found for the results from the abattoirs' own samples. This is probably because the abattoirs sample a smaller area on the carcasses, and that many abattoirs sample cold carcasses. Work packages 1 and 2 attempted to determine a conversion factor between different sampling methods and for warm/cold carcasses, but there was too much variation in the results to determine factors. A scientific article is in progress.
In work package 3, the samples from the 20 abattoirs examined for Enterobacteriaceae and E. coli at the Veterinary Institute, were analyzed for verotoxin-producing and antibiotic resistant E. coli. There were no findings of the "big five" serogroups (O157 etc), but several stx and eae genes were detected. The gene stx2a was detected from three cattle abattoirs, and can potentially cause human infection. E.coli resistent to quinolones were detected in six abattoirs. However, the low occurence of pathologic E. coli indicate general good slaughter hygiene. A scientific article is in progress.
Work Package 4 deals with statistical analyzes and causal process-oriented Bayesian network models for E. coli and other hygiene indicator bacteria in cattle and sheep meat production lines. Routine data from abattoirs in Norway and Denmark for the last 3 years have been collected and analyzed. Quality leaders at Norwegian and Danish abattoirs have been interviewed to find how routine data for slaughtering hygiene are used. A scientific article is in progress.
Work package 5 focuses on perception of hygiene, risk, and preparedness. Many surveys have investigated consumer perceptions of food safety and risk, but few surveys have asked the stakeholders, such as employees in the meat industry, food safety, researchers, etc. A combined survey and con exercise on competencies, attitudes and perceptions about hygiene, risk and preparedness are made. The emergency preparedness exercise has been carried out at the Norwegian slaughterhouses participating in the project. It has been recorded how the different slaughterhouses act on the moments that appear in the emergency preparedness exercise. A survey of competence and attitudes towards food safety has also been conducted. A summary of these results is in progress.
A closure seminar presenting the project results is held in spring 2018. The target group is employees in the abattoirs and the Food Safety Authority.
The Hygenea project seeks to secure pay-back from hygiene investments and achievements in abattoirs. This is to be achieved by developing tools for risk based international assessment of hygiene in abattoirs, including microbiological status, visual contamination and general hygiene practices.
The research elements include development of a protocol for international baseline studies on hygiene in abattoirs based on literature, proper laboratory experimental design, risk profiling of VTEC and antimicrobial resistance in E. coli and a mathematical platform for result conversion and comparison.
The protocol will be applied and validated in a selection of abattoirs in Norway, Denmark, Germany, England and Spain. All selling meat in the Norwegian market.
The mandatory hygiene regimes should be improved, and better models (Bayesian Network) for the links between hygiene regimes and food safety risks will be established.
Consumers and especially stakeholders' knowledge, attitudes and perception of general hygiene, risk and preparedness have a significant impact on priorities and decisions that affect food safety and will be surveyed in the project. Furthermore, three tools will be developed: 1) for trace back and identification of where in the production line microbial contamination are occurring, 2) assessment of costs related to implementation of risk reducing measures in the process vs the benefit for food safety and public health, 3) risk categorization of abattoirs, which can hence be used by the abattoirs for benchmarking. Finally, a map of knowledge gaps among stakeholders to be addressed in the future will be made. Together, these elements will provide objective indications of relative meat hygiene among the enrolled abattoirs, and tools that could be adopted by EFSA and national food authorities. The knowledge gained from these elements is important for development of policies and legislation with huge economic and hygienic impact in the sector and society.