NPA responds to media storm over hepatitis E virus

The NPA has responded to media reports on the link between human infection with the hepatitis E virus (HEV) and eating pork.

The association has issued a response laying out the facts about the virus, following areport in the Sunday Times, widely picked up by other media titles, which said tens of thousands of Britons are being infected with a ‘potentially deadly liver virus’ in pork products, mostly imported from Europe.

According to the reports, the strain of hepatitis E, linked to pig farms in France, Holland, Germany and Denmark, is infecting more than 60,000 people in Britain a year.

While most cases are not serious, figures from Public Health England (PHE) show an increase in serious illnesses, from 368 in 2010 to 1,244 in 2016. Transplant patients and pregnant women are considered especially at risk.

This is not the first time these reports have appeared but the trigger for the Sunday Times article appeared to be comments made a conference last week by Dr Harry Dalton, a gastroenterologist at Exeter University.

“I call it the Brexit virus,” he is quoted as saying. “It attacks the liver and nerves, with a peak in May. It is particularly dangerous for people with suppressed immune systems such as those who have had organ transplants and possibly cancer. The virus seems to come from Europe.”

The reports quoted a study showing the virus had spread to more than 90% of British pigs. They also referred to research suggesting 10% of sausages could be affected.

NPA response

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 infecions in humans.

The NPA has also urged caution on the suggestion that 10% of sausages could be infected.

This finding was from a limited sample size of 63 sausages from 11 batches. While six sausages tested positive for HEV, five of these were from the same batch. The origin of the meat in the sausages was not known.

In the UK, sausages with the Red Tractor logo are not permitted to include liver or offal, reducing the risk of contamination compared with countries where liver and blood sausages are popular.

NPA statement: “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.

“The NPA agrees with the conclusion of the researchers that if people in this country have contracted hepatitis E virus from eating pork, it is likely to have come from imported pork, rather than British pork.

“AHDB Pork has commissioned a number of research projects to better understand HEV presence on British pig farms and the risk to public health. Further research and surveillance is required to determine the true cause of the rise in hepatitis E cases in the UK.

“NPA recommends that consumers follow the advice from the Food Standards Agency that pork and sausages should be cooked thoroughly until steaming hot throughout, with no pink or red in the centre, to greatly reduce the risk of infection.”

In response to previous reports, the NPA has published a detailed briefing on its website, which can be viewed here.

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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.