Ed Nottingham, Head of Agricultural Insurance looks at the ways that salmonella can occur on poultry farms, and the things that can be done to mitigate the risk of an outbreak.
Egg producers have long recognised the need to protect their farms from the thread of an outbreak of salmonella, with consistent availability from insurers adding to its popularity over many years. As with all insurance products, the perception of what constitutes a risk to producers is mirrored by insurers, with the two working closely to reward those producers who have risk mitigation placed high on their management plan.
Top of that list is always bio-security. Whilst this is seen as a mainstay for any commercial producer, the need to reinforce good practices is as strong as ever. Insurers largely rely on the external audit processes of BEIC, packers and retailers to maintain high standards but are now also rewarding producers who create full contingency plans. This means teaming up with equipment and training providers to ensure that those who take this seriously are rewarded with the best cover and rates available. “Being able to offer financial rewards for engagement with professional livestock protection providers is certainly one of the better things to happen within insurance in the last couple of years” says Ed. “It is only right that we encourage good behaviour, and we are proud of the role we play in ensuring that the process of getting better never stops.”
Free range egg producers will also be a large part of the National Control Programme (NCP) for salmonella, and this is seen as a mainstay of eligibility for cover. Ed comments: “Producers are used to the regular testing that is required by the NCP. Not only does it reinforce good practice, it also allows for early notification if there is an issue.” And this highlights one key area of concern among insurers: a succession of outbreaks. “Insurers allow for sporadic outbreaks in their financial modelling,” says Ed. “But a cluster remains their biggest fear. Stopping the spread of the disease is crucial.”
That NCP programme has led to the routine vaccination of chicks, with flocks now arriving on site with a degree of protection already within them. However, as flocks run longer, the effectiveness of those vaccines has been brought into question, with many having a published period of protection of around a year. As Ed says: “Flock age and the length of the expected cycle is something that was not considered before. Most policies are written on an annual basis – not for the length of the flock – so it is reasonably certain that a flock will be described as ‘older’ once during every policy at the very least. I would hope that by the time the statistics show efficacy to be a problem, the vaccines will have improved to provide longer protection.”
Physical security to prevent incursions is also a major concern. “The most likely route for disease to take into a flock is via rodents,” says Ed. “Insurers are increasingly looking to check that the structure of the hen house is robust enough to withstand this threat. This invariably means questions around the nature and age of a building will be assessed as part of the underwriting process.” So does this mean that there are sheds which cannot be insured? “Officially no,” says Ed. “The construction of the hen house is part of the assessment, but it’s the overall attitude which is really the major factor in what leads to a quotation being obtained. Where there is a will to work together to make the farm security as good as it can possibly be, insurance remains inclusive.”
In recent years parts of England and Wales have been deemed to be ‘higher risk areas’ for avian influenza, so does geography also play a part in the risk of contracting salmonella? “On a national scale, not at the moment,” reports Ed. “Locally, when assessing a risk, we look for features which might have a bearing, with the main one being proximity of pigs.” Pigs have long been seen as a species in which salmonella typhimurium has a foothold, and consequently most commercial egg producers do not now have pigs on their sites. But how do you control what is going on around you? “It is very difficult. Long hot summers, outdoor pig units, lots of dust and the wind blowing the wrong way is a tough one to mitigate. Having an awareness of that issue is the start, followed by a chat with the pig owner as to how they might be able to damp down their site is the ideal way of approaching the issue.”
One other area which has become a topic for insurers is co-grazing. Long seen as a complimentary method of range management, co-grazing is now being looked upon as creating a possible increased risk of infection. “It is not so much the animals that are grazing, more the people who are tending to them,” Ed advises. “Liveries are top of that list. Who are the horse owners? Where have they been? And what do they do? These are questions that invariably do not have straightforward answers. Knowing who is coming on to the range and asking them a few questions should be commonplace these days.”
Is there anything else for egg producers to consider? “It is the simple things that are right under people’s noses but maybe are overlooked,” comments Ed. “Footpaths: keep an eye out and pick up any rubbish that might get left behind. Rivers, streams and ditches: keep them clear to give water the best chance of flowing away as flooding invariably brings troubles. Always ask your contractors and visitors where they have been before coming on to your farm. Train staff not to leave food and drink behind and to clean up after themselves. It’s common sense to most people, but also a timely reminder to others.”
In the event of an outbreak of salmonella there are two possible outcomes on the infected site: a culling of the flock or, if markets allow, continued production of eggs which are then sent for heat treatment before entering the food chain. It is a decision which is generally played out in a commercial environment, with insurers accommodating both options. However, that does leave insurers at odds with the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, who have cited continued production by laying flocks infected with salmonella as one of their top reasons for the recent spread of the disease. Ed is well aware of the part insurers play in this debate. “Potentially, insurers would rather production continued, as it limits their loss in the first instance. Does it help to eradicate the disease? Evidently not. Insurers have their part to play but I suspect that the market will dictate the course of events as there are now enough eggs in circulation, and continued production is less likely than it has been in the past.”
Ed is optimistic about the future: “All the data confirms that the UK remains one of the best countries in the world at controlling regulated salmonella. It has taken the hard work and dedication of the whole industry to get us to this point, so it is now more about continuing the established high standards of practice and remaining vigilant, as opposed to reinventing the wheel.”
So knowing all this, what does Ed regard as the perfect site to insure against salmonella? “It’s the one which doesn’t have an outbreak!” is his succinct response. “But aside from the obvious, it’s the egg producer who is doing his level best at all times. Running any farm business is tough, but if you hit the pillow at night knowing you have done all you can, then you’re the one for us.”