UK supermarket linked to UK Hepatitis E cases

A single UK retailer has been linked Hepatitis E infection in the UK, which recent figures show is now falling.

The Sunday Times reported that a leading British supermarket may ‘unwittingly have infected thousands of people with a pig virus that causes liver cirrhosis and neurological damage’.

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).

Scientists at PHE traced the shopping habits of infected people and found consumption of own-brand sausages from the retailer, referred to as ‘Supermarket X’ to be a common factor. Two previous PHE studies going back to 2011 also pointed at Supermarket X’s pork products as a key source of the virus.

Studies have shown the meat is likely to have originated elsewhere in the EU, mainly from Holland and Germany. PHE and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) have refused to name the supermarket because they say the findings ‘do not infer blame on the supermarket’. But two separate sources said it was Tesco, according to the Sunday Times report.

Falling cases

Figures published by Public Health England (PHE) showed there were 230 cases of the virus recorded in the second quarter of 2017, compared with 368 in the same quarter of 2016. The fall follows a persistent upward trend in cases of the virus between 2010 and 2016.

NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “NPA is pleased to see that human cases of HEV in the UK are dropping. However, we recommend that consumers follow 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 any risk of infection.”

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) pointed out there were other sources of Hepatitis E infections in humans other than pork, including wild boar, deer and shellfish.

It also highlighted the recent fall in cases and said, in comparison to the 1.7 million tonnes of pigmeat consumed in 2016, the level of Hepatitis E infection was ‘extremely small, suggesting that pork remains a safe and nutritious meal choice for UK consumers’.

The BMPA said: “UK pork manufacturers are committed to understanding more about the virus and are supporting further research to develop reliable methods of detection to assist in identifying potential sources of contamination and animal/food treatments to eliminate the virus from the supply chain.”

An FSA spokesperson said the agency was reviewing all aspects of hepatitis E infection with other government departments and industry.

She said: “The risk from acquiring hepatitis E virus (HEV) from eating thoroughly cooked pork or pork products is low.

“As a precaution, the FSA advises consumers that all 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.”

A Tesco spokesperson said: “We work very closely with the FSA and PHE to make sure customers can be confident in the safety and quality of the food they buy.

“Food quality is really important to us and we have in place an expert team to ensure the highest possible standards at every stage of our supply chain, as well as providing clear information to customers on how to handle and cook pork in the home to minimise the risk of hepatitis E.”

See Pig World’s analysis of the truth behind the claim about Hepatitis E and pork 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.