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Reducing Egg Susceptibility to Contaminations in Avian Production in Europe

Final Report Summary - RESCAPE (Reducing Egg Susceptibility to Contaminations in Avian Production in Europe)

Improve the environment, welfare and health of hens without damaging egg quality. This seems to be the message behind new legislation seeking to ban the conventional caging of chickens in order to produce healthier eggs. The conclusions of recent scientific studies point to the fact that hens moved from conventional cages to alternative systems, are more prone to contamination. With an annual volume of 13.8 million tonnes of eggs being consumed in the EU alone, that's a lot of potential poultry befoulment.

By 2012, Council Directive 1999/74/EC defining minimum standards for the welfare of laying hens will come into effect. This legislation's goal is to abolish conventional cage systems in favour of enriched cages or floor systems in order to improve the welfare of hens, thereby banning a practice that had concerned consumers about the ethics of egg production. RESCAPE's goal of high-quality, safe eggs from new production systems is an important contribution to maintaining an evenly distributed European industry. Additionally, the project should help maintain the internal market share for EU eggs and egg products.

Different scientific panels have recently concluded that keeping hens on the floor or outside presents an increased risk of contamination due to a greater exposure to infectious agents or parasites. European citizens, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of food, and demand that it be free of biological and chemical contaminants. Therefore, EU legislation regarding animal welfare needs to be balanced by effective measures for reducing any risk of human contamination.

In order to counter any future contamination, RESCAPE looked into different research areas. The project team aimed to optimise enriched cage and aviary design by recording quantitative data for egg contamination, thereby minimising the risk factors in alternative systems. Researchers looked into the reinforcement of the natural antimicrobial and mechanical defence mechanisms of eggs, by identifying the genes involved and selecting hens with superior antimicrobial alleles. The project also planned to improve technology for egg grading in order to increase the detection of eggs with the greatest risk to the consumer. The development of innovative egg decontamination treatments using microwave, hot air and gas plasma sterilisation, and modified atmosphere packaging or chitosan, was also scrutinised.

During the whole three year period, RESCAPE has completed a majority of the initial milestones to reach its multidisciplinary objectives aimed at reducing the risk from eggs which are unfit for human consumption by developing complementary solutions at the level of the hen (breeding), farm (design and management) and egg marketing (egg decontamination and sorting).

Among the achievements is:
- assessing egg contamination in various laying hen housing systems and to identify factors at risk,
-developing a vaccine to reduce the poultry mite survival,
-identifying then testing a large number of gene candidates to select hens on the antimicrobial capacities of eggs using Marker Assisted Selection,
-improving non-invasive technology to sort and identify eggs at risk,
-explore the feasibility of using novel egg decontamination treatments.
In addition, RESCAPE has continued to inform all stakeholders (consumers, scientists, legislators, poultry professionals) of the progress of the RESCAPE project.