In 2021, in the EU, 8.1 billion hen eggs were incubated for the production of chicks, which were then used to produce meat, table eggs or breeders (table 1). This step, which enables birds to be supplied to farms, is therefore essential in the poultry industry. It takes place in hatcheries, the establishments where hatching eggs are incubated until they hatch.
As poultry farms are dependent on hatcheries, it is very important for them to have quality eggs to produce healthy, high-performance birds. Hatcheries must therefore comply with strict biosecurity measures to prevent the introduction and development of pathogens in eggs and chicks. The biosecurity measures and protocols in these facilities are clear and well-defined and must be respected to guarantee excellent sanitary status, whether through the work of the staff or those involved (e.g. drivers) or through the cleaning and disinfection (C&D) procedures for all the equipment.
These biosecurity measures adapted to hatcheries are detailed in this NetPoulSafe podcast by Luc Ledoux (Cid Lines) and Hilde Van Meirhaeghe (Vetworks).
Biosecurity isn’t so easy to comply with – the difficulties faced by French hatcheries
France is the 3rd largest producer of hatching eggs in Europe, behind Turkey and Poland. In France, a biosecurity plan is defined in the ministerial decree of 29 September 2021 to prevent contamination by pathogens and maintain healthy, sustainable poultry production. Hatcheries can also adhere to a health charter set up by the SNA (National Union of Hatcheries) in response to regulations on salmonella control. However, in practice, compliance with these regulations is not so simple in the eyes of all those involved in poultry farming, including hatcheries.
Therefore, to identify the current difficulties encountered by French hatcheries in applying biosecurity measures and to identify areas for improvement, the ITAVI (French Technical Institute of Poultry Farming, Rabbit Farming, and Aquaculture) and the SNGTV (National Society of Veterinary Technical Groups) conducted a survey. It was carried out with 3 hatchery quality managers, in partnership with the SNA in October 2022, based on the principle of a focus group: a collective qualitative survey, making it possible to explore the diversity of ways of seeing, thinking, acting and changing, and therefore to identify shared understandings and disagreements.
I. Difficulties encountered
Four major difficulties in applying biosecurity measures at hatchery level emerged from the discussions.
A. Controlling trucks contamination
Trucks are potential vectors of disease between farms and hatcheries. For a number of reasons, disinfection of these vehicles appeared to be difficult to implement, with protocols that were rarely, if ever, followed.
- Operational reasons
- On the breeding farms, disinfection equipment is not always present or the disinfection area is not always properly signposted.
- The drivers do not systematically comply with the protocols: they are not supervised during their rounds and have no “pressure” to comply with the protocols, which can also present a health risk (dangerous disinfection products), increase working time and making work more tedious.
More broadly, the question of the operational feasibility of implementing a complete and effective protocol for the C&D of trucks arises in terms of material cost, time and organisation. This lack of compliance with current disinfection protocols generates tension between drivers and farmers. Some farmers also develop a negative view of hatcheries through the image of trucks that are not or poorly disinfected, which can be a vector of pathogens for their own farms.
- Misunderstandings of regulations
- Certain elements of the protocols are difficult to interpret (e.g. the definition of the “underbody of a vehicle”).
- Texts and regulations multiply according to geographical areas and contexts, so they are difficult to follow and can appear inconsistent depending on regional specificities.
These problems lead to a lack of understanding of the measures to be taken by drivers, to whom it is difficult to explain the multitude of rules, their objectives and their coherence. They may then be judged to be unjustified and irrelevant, and therefore less complied with. As a result, practices in the field vary, which contributes to the negative image of hatcheries held by farmers.
- Lack of effectiveness of the protocols
- Not all the disinfection methods used have been scientifically validated, such as on-board disinfection on trucks.
- Disinfection without prior cleaning of truck wheels and bodies is far less effective.
This last point may also contribute to the perceived inconsistency of the measures requested, and therefore to drivers’ lack of compliance.
B. Loss of compliance with basic biosecurity measures
Personal hygiene measures (showers, hand washing), respect for the forward walk through clean and dirty zones were the second problem raised by hatchery managers.
- Lack of staff awareness on the risk of the vectors they represent
- A lack of training was noted, as well as a lack of accountability (especially for service providers).
- The perception of certain risk factors is biased, generated by the focus on avian influenza and certain parts of scientific data. For example, some people no longer wash their hands, considering the airborne nature of AI to be a major factor in transmission. But they are forgetting about the presence of other important pathogens such as Salmonella.
- Staff are more concerned about the risks to their health, hardship, pay and social recognition.
These losses in awareness, hygiene culture and biosecurity lead to a gradual deterioration in general compliance with biosecurity measures (e.g. hygiene lock, management of employee breaks/restaurants), with a gradual increase in the risk of outbreaks of other pathogens such as Salmonella.
- Management under pressure
- The decline in hatchery activity is disrupting management teams.
- The AI context is leading to a turn-over in management teams.
- Increasingly complex regulations and specifications (Animal welfare, biosecurity, environment) are leading to more complex tasks and workloads.
The direct consequence of this is that middle management teams lack the time and expertise on certain issues to properly train and raise awareness among employees and service providers, and to monitor compliance with the measures in place.
C. Controlling contamination of hatching eggs
Hatching eggs are possible vectors between farms and hatcheries. They are targeted in particular by the health charter and represent a major concern with two main causes:
- Contamination of hatching eggs on arrival at the hatchery is too high. Consequently, it is difficult, whatever the disinfection protocol, to reduce the contamination pressure to a satisfactory level.
- The most effective disinfection methods are also those that present the greatest health risks for operators, and are therefore being used less and less. At the moment, the average reductions obtained by disinfection methods are of the order of 50% of the initial contamination pressure (total flora).
These difficulties raise questions for hatcheries about the value of disinfecting eggs in terms of the health risks for operators and the costs involved.
II. SOLUTIONS IDENTIFIED
Communication about biosecurity measures, risk factors and good practices appears to be absolutely essential if progress is to be made in resolving the problems discussed. This makes it possible to :
- Better communicate and raise awareness among employees and service providers of the importance of observing “basic biosecurity measures” (in particular hygiene rules).
- Do not focus examples solely on the case of AI, so as not to forget other risk factors and give new meaning to biosecurity measures.
- Take a global approach, and integrate actions/measures into day-to-day work, taking time and health risks into account in the protocols and solutions put in place, so as to integrate employees’ priority concerns.
- Supporting middle managers as their job change and taking into account multiple challenges
- Train middle managers on the different issues and roles they have to deal with in their jobs (training employees, raising awareness, monitoring).
- Consider integrating these different dimensions when recruiting people, and pay attention to the attractiveness of the job to limit team turnover.
The complexity and multiplicity of regulations, and sometimes even their inconsistency with the intended objectives, also appear to be a major cause of problems, and it seems important to :
- Rework the texts in force in a pragmatic way, thinking about feasibility on the ground and taking account of work-related concerns.
- Harmonise the rules in force between regions/departments, particularly with regard to enhanced C&D protocols.
The flow of contaminants between farms and hatcheries can be better controlled:
- Improving the C&D of transport trucks, by considering, for example, the installation of automated washing stations at the entrances to farms or hatcheries (and taking into account the cost of these systems).
- Improve the internal biosecurity of farms in order to control the increase in contamination pressure within farms, by raising farmers’ awareness on biosecurity.
To sum up, the hatchery managers in this focus group in France highlighted three priorities for overcoming the difficulties they encounter in the area of biosecurity: improving the C&D of transport trucks by considering the purchase of washing stations, simplifying regulations and adopting a pragmatic approach, and training employees and supervisors. This survey among French hatcheries highlights the need for exchanges between stakeholders in the poultry industry ( farmers, operators, advisors and government bodies) in order to move forward together.
How can these interactions and the understanding of biosecurity be facilitated?
There is a clear need for co-development and co-protection in the poultry industry. While not all the problems can be solved, these discussions will help to guide the content of the tools to be made available to industry stakeholders to improve biosecurity in Europe.
A comprehensive e-learning module presenting the principles of biosecurity in poultry production and hatcheries in 7 EU countries has been developed to help raise awareness and knowledge among employees and farmers. Numerous other online resources have also been developed (videos, technical fact sheets, podcasts, etc.). To address biosecurity issues relating to drivers, for example, a video has been produced on the importance of N&D procedures for lorries and the tools available to carry out these procedures. Other materials focus on compliance with cleaning and disinfection procedures and the use of sanitary locks. To support the training of advisors and supervisors, the methods and tools used to support the sector’s producers are highlighted in these materials. Finally, to communicate on a large scale with the industry, free-access webinars are organised on various subjects, also focusing on biosecurity in hatcheries.
All these resources are freely available on the NetPoulSafe online Knowledge Reservoir, in 7 different languages (English, Italian, French, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian and Dutch), so they can be accessed at any time by anyone in the industry!