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How animal health is the forgotten factor in producing affordable, safe food for Europe ǀ View

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Despite the rise of vegetarianism and veganism in Europe, animal-source foods currently remain our only option for meeting the nutrient demands of a growing global population.

Animal protein is particularly important in developing countries where undernutrition is high, but widespread access to affordable and safe meat, fish, milk and eggs in Europe has also contributed to our nutrition security – and our freedom to choose a diverse diet.

Key factors in the high food safety standards that we enjoy in Europe are rigorous health policies and a robust animal health sector that provides effective animal medicines, and a culture of constant innovation.

Yet the role of animal health in guaranteeing affordable, healthy food in Europe is often misunderstood and under-valued.

Many consumers assume it is healthier and more natural for animals to roam outside, but often for their own safety and the safety of animal-source food, they are likely to remain healthier when in carefully controlled and hygienic conditions.
Wijnand de Bruijn
President of AnimalhealthEurope

Firstly, consumers take for granted how effective animal vaccination and other preventative medicines have been in reducing the threat of serious livestock disease and safeguarding crucial food supplies.

We have not had an economically damaging animal disease outbreak since the Foot and Mouth Disease crisis almost 20 years ago, and in the Netherlands, the last significant animal disease outbreak was in 2010 with a surge of Q fever cases, which also killed 24 people.

Not only has vaccination bolstered our food system from the threat of animal disease, it has helped avoid the need for the culling of infected animals and reduced the risk of foodborne illness. Vaccinating poultry against salmonella, for example, reduced the human cases of infection in the UK by 87 per cent from 1993 to 2008.

When the threat appears to be under control, it is easy to forget it ever existed – but it is only under control thanks to animal medicine.

Secondly, the animal-source food that is consistently produced in Europe is safer than ever before thanks to our high standards around veterinary medicines, which includes the responsible use of antibiotics and withdrawing any animal under treatment.

In the Netherlands, a series of effective initiatives including transparency and monitoring of antibiotic use, promoting animal health initiatives and responsible use allowed us to reduce antibiotics usage in animal husbandry by more than 60 per cent between 2009 and 2016.

And it is no coincidence that Europe is the region with the lowest burden of foodborne illness when it also has a consistently high compliance with recommended safety levels.

This includes regulations that ensure animals under treatment are withdrawn from the food chain until they are clear of the medicine, removing the chance that traces reach consumers.

Complying with these regulations has also inspired national governments, industry and health agencies to invest in developing new preventative measures to reduce the need for antibiotics in the first place.

Finally, European livestock production has achieved highly efficient production thanks to rigorous health and welfare standards, which is reflected in the price of meat, fish, milk and eggs.

This includes proactive efforts to protect animals from disease not only for the quality of their produce but for their own welfare.

Keeping animals indoors can spare them the risk of contracting disease from the nearby environment or wildlife, such as African Swine Fever, which was recently reported in Belgium and affects wild boar as well as domestic swine.

Many consumers assume it is healthier and more natural for animals to roam outside, but often for their own safety and the safety of animal-source food, they are likely to remain healthier when in carefully controlled and hygienic conditions.

For all these reasons, animal health is the cornerstone of food safety, and as a result, food security for Europe and beyond.

By constantly improving animal health, we can improve not only the nutritional value of meat, fish, milk and eggs but the sustainability of our global diets as well.

Wijnand de Bruijn is the President of AnimalhealthEurope.

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