How we reported the salmonella crisis 25 years ago

The timing of Edwina Currie’s claim that most egg production was infected with salmonella could hardly have been worse for Poultry World, coming just days after the December 1988 issue had gone to press.

The immediate coverage was therefore left to sister magazine Farmers Weekly. The lead story in the 9 December issue carried the headline “Egg flip from Edwina”, and focused on calls by NFU president, Sir Simon Gourlay for Mrs Currie to resign.

With just 26 cases of food poisoning confirmed as being caused by eggs, the chances of infection in humans was put at one in 200m. But producers were still advised to follow a new ministry code of practice.

Despite the bad timing, Poultry World was certainly up to speed with the issue having been charting the rise in the incidence of salmonella and the consequent assault on the reputation of eggs for several months.

Our September front page story was entitled “Food scare catches eggs on the raw” and described how the Department of Health (DoH) and the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) were working with the industry “to investigate what is seen as an alarming increase in the number of egg-associated outbreaks of salmonella food poisoning”. 

There had been a four-fold increase in levels of Salmonella enteriditis food poisoning in the first half of the year, and a clear link established with the new “phage type four” strain found in eggs and poultry. But the article added that “the industry is keeping its head down, hoping that the whole thing will blow over” and suggested the scare was “politically motivated”.

The November 1988 edition then included an article called “Salmonella blitz”, describing an all-out attack by feed compounders, breeders, hatcheries, processors and farmers against the “sudden scourge of Salmonella enteriditis”.

The then editor John Farrant followed it up with an editorial comment saying there was no risk associated with eating eggs, though ceded that the issue was “one of the most serious threats ever faced by the industry”.

This tone was heightened in the December issue with a lead story entitled “The fight for survival gets underway”. Written before Mrs Currie’s comments, it talked of a “big fight back” by farmers and packers to re-establish the image of eggs, in the wake of a 15-20% drop in consumption.

Media outrage

“After a month in which eggs have been on the receiving end of the biggest, most concerted media battering ever…flocks, feed and eggs are being tested, codes of practice are being produced and high powered committees are trying to work out long term solutions,” we wrote.

And then the media storm really hit, with Mrs Currie’s sensational claim and eggs featuring on every TV channel and in every newspaper for days, indeed weeks, to come.

Having given the emerging crisis fairly limited coverage in its 9 December issue (it also coincided with the Smithfield Show in London, which occupied 10 pages of News coverage), Farmers Weekly stepped it up the following week.

The editorial Leader declared “Edwina Currie is prime candidate for a quick cull”. “She’s gone to work on every egg and egg producer in the country,” it said. “She’s laid about her with such indiscriminate gusto that the danger she represents to the egg industry exceeds by far the danger posed by Salmonella enteriditis itself.” (The editor at the time was obviously fond of clichés.)

The Leader also called for a government-funded publicity campaign and for the Department of Health to compensate producers for the loss of income. It suggested the NFU sue Mrs Currie.

Meanwhile, six related stories appeared on the lead News page, including the claim that many of the country’s 5,000 commercial egg producers faced bankruptcy, with losses amounting to £5m a week and hundreds of thousands of layers being gassed.

Evan Rees Poultry in West Glamorgan had slaughtered 36,000 birds following a 60% drop in sales, adding to the blockages appearing at hen processing plants. David and Mary Buxton in Somerset had started forced moulting their birds to stop egg production four months early.

The coverage continued in Farmers Weekly’s Christmas issue, celebrating the departure of Edwina Currie on 16 December, and accusing the Department of Health of having grossly overstated the role of eggs in salmonella food poisoning in humans. Meanwhile, the government was paying 30p/doz for the destruction of 10m eggs, and £1.75 a bird for the cull of 4 million hens – 4% of the national flock.

This package was welcome, though it still failed to cover the 45p/doz estimated cost of production, Amanda Cryer of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) was quoted as saying.

Government confusion

Poultry World was finally able to take up the mantle again in its January 1989 issue. The lead story, entitled “Ministries still at odds on the cause”, looked at the conflicting views coming out of government. 

The Department of Health was blaming hens’ oviducts as the source of contamination with Salmonell enteriditis. But the Ministry of Agriculture had conducted hundreds of tests on eggs and failed to find any salmonella at all.

The magazine also reported on government and industry attempts to reassure consumers, with a £500,000 DEFRA-funded advertising campaign and Thames Valley’s “Eggs are safe” leafleting campaign. 

Producers were taking matters into their own hands, getting out and about to talk direct to consumers. Edward Edgell of Hampshire Brownies said reputation was everything, but sales were still 30% down going into the New Year. 

Agriculture minister John MacGregor was seeking new salmonella controls enshrined in legislation, while industry critic Prof Richard Lacy was claiming that millions of birds would have to be slaughtered if salmonella was to be eradicated.

Meanwhile, feed industry organisation UKASTA reported that its members were phasing out the practice of using poultry by-products in poultry rations – something that many critics said was the real cause of the salmonella crisis.

In his editorial comment, John Farrant asked “Why eggs?” and attacked poor catering standards and bad kitchen hygiene as the real culprits behind food poisoning. “Eggs have become the Aunt Sally for so-called experts and publicity seekers to show off their lack of knowledge outside their little sphere,” he said.

Battery cages had been unfairly blamed whereas “evidence has shown that in the few cases where egg-linked salmonella can be traced back to farms, most were from free-range units”. Poultry World welcomed moves by the BEIC to develop a quality assurance scheme, similar to the meat sector’s scheme with Food From Britain.


We also welcomed steps by MAFF to tighten up the Protein Processing Order, as imported feed protein had been identified as a major source of contamination. And the magazine applauded the “rush” to join the BEIC. “If ever there was a time to get together and fight to get our market back it is now.”

In a more practical vein, our report from the annual Flock Farmers Conference at Newmarket warned that salmonella would not disappear any time soon.

As well as tighter controls on feed, the industry should look to improve biosecurity and avoid stressing birds. Feed bins should be cleaned regularly.

As the months went on, Poultry World continued to report on the unfolding crisis, including a ban on the sale of eggs from contaminated or suspect flocks, restrictions on the movement of contaminated feed, and reports that Edwina Currie had been offered £40,000 to write a book on the subject.

In February the Agriculture Select Committee published a report saying there was no evidence to support Mrs Currie’s claims and she should have retracted her comments.

Despite this, the market was slow to recover and it was not until the launch of the Lion Scheme 10 years later that things really started to improve, and another 25 years before egg consumption in the UK reached its “pre-Currie” levels.

More on this issue

Edwina Currie helps launch Lion Code 7

See more