Consumption of raw or undercooked pork meat and liver is the most common cause of Hepatitis E infection in the EU, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Official advice continues to be, however, that thorough cooking of pork products will reduce the risk of illness from harmful foodborne bacteria and viruses like hepatitis E.
More than 21,000 cases of Hepatits E infections have been reported in humans over the last 10 years, with an overall 10-fold increase in this period, EFSA said in its latest opinion on the virus.
Rosina Girones, chair of EFSA’s working group on HEV, said: “Even if it is not as widespread as other foodborne diseases, Hepatitis E is a growing concern in the EU. In the past, people thought the main source of infection was drinking contaminated water while travelling outside the EU. But now we know the main source of transmission of the disease in Europe is food.”
Domestic pigs are the main carriers of Hepatitis E in the EU. Wild boars can also carry the virus, but meat from these animals is less commonly consumed, EFSA said.
EFSA’s Panel on Biological Hazards is recommending that member states increase awareness of public health risks associated with raw and undercooked pork meat and advise consumers to cook pork meat thoroughly. The panel is also stressing the need to develop suitable methods for detecting the virus in food.
This scientific advice builds on a previous scientific opinion on the occurrence and control of foodborne viruses published in 2011.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has also published a report on Hepatitis E in humans which assesses testing, diagnosis and monitoring methods and reviews available epidemiological data.
National Pig Association (NPA) senior policy advisor Georgina Crayford said: “Pigs are a natural reservoir for hepatitis E and infection is present in pig populations worldwide.
“The EFSA report reinforces the existing FSA advice to consumers about cooking pork safely. Ensuring pork and pork products are cooked thoroughly will reduce the risk of illness from hepatitis E.
“The EFSA report also highlights that while most cases were reported in France, Germany and the UK this is because these countries have established and consistent surveillance systems, which stands us in good stead for carefully monitoring this emerging public health issue.
“NPA welcomes the call from EFSA for more research into suitable methods for detecting hepatitis E in food as this will help us to ensure British pork remains safe.”
She also highlighted evidence that if people in this country have contracted Hepatitis E virus (HEV) from eating pork, it is likely to have come from imported pork, rather than British pork.
“Research at Public Health England has shown that the subgroup of hepatitis E causing the majority of human infection in the UK is not the same as the subgroup found in UK pigs,” she said.
To see the NPA’s briefing on Hepatitis E, click here
AHDB Pork response
AHDB strategy director for pork Mick Sloyan said: “Although Hepatitis E affects only a very small number of people across Europe, and those that are affected mostly display no or only mild symptoms, the increase in cases needs to be monitored.
“Hep E in the UK is still considered to be low risk by industry experts. Raw and undercooked pork has been highlighted by EFSA as a cause of infection in this very small number of people.
“Our advice is, if you are concerned then ensure that pork, pork products and offal are thoroughly cooked until steaming hot and the juices run clear. Hep E is heat sensitive and is destroyed by proper cooking.
“Despite the very low risk the industry is working together, including the Pig Health and Welfare Council and AHDB, to ensure that British pig production remains safe and operates to the highest standards that are independently audited.”
Following recent media reports linking a rise in Hepatitis E infection in humans to imported pork, the UK Food Standards Agency reiterated its advice to consumers about cooking pork thoroughly.
It said: “We always advise that whole cuts of pork, pork products and offal should be thoroughly cooked until steaming hot throughout, the meat is no longer pink and juices run clear.
“This will reduce the risk of illness from harmful foodborne bacteria and viruses like hepatitis E. The risk from acquiring hepatitis E virus (HEV) from eating thoroughly cooked pork or pork products is low.”
- Hepatitis E is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis E virus (HEV)
- Most people who contract hepatitis E display no or mild symptoms. However, in some cases especially for those with liver damage or patients with a weak immune system, it can lead to liver failure – which can be fatal
- Most cases were reported in France, Germany and UK because these countries have established and consistent surveillance systems
- Pigs are a natural reservoir for HEV and infection is present in pig populations worldwide
- Samples collected in 2013 as part of a survey of UK slaughter pigs found the virus in 129 out of 629 (20.5%) pigs, while 93% tested positive for HEV antibodies, indicating exposure at some point in life
- However, high-level presence of the virus to a level that could be infectious to humans via consumption of the raw pigmeat was only found in 6 of the 629 pigs sampled
- In this survey, the majority of the viral samples belonged to a different subgroup to that causing infections in humans.