The number of hepatitis E cases reported in foods had increased from relatively few, to more than 600 last year, said Sarah O’Brien, professor of infection epidemiology and zoonoses at the University of Liverpool. She was speaking at Leatherhead Food Research’s food safety event last month.
Infection was found mainly in processed pork products and many of the hepatitis E cases reported in the UK came from a strain linked with pigs, she added.
A recent Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs study showed that 90% of UK pigs at slaughter had hepatitis E and 1% were thought capable of transmitting the virus as an end product. “The virus may survive normal processing, studies have shown,” said O’Brien. “But one of the challenges about it is that we have got more questions than answers at the moment.”
More research needed
One way to increase consumer safety, as with other viral and bacterial food infections, was to advise them to cook pork products properly, she added. However, more research into the effect of heat on the virus was needed. “Until then, if anyone offers you pink pork, run a mile,” she added.
The emerging issue of hepatitis E in pork products would also call into question the effects curing has on foods like salami, said O’Brien and called for the development of a testing method.
Her warning followed a recent draft report from the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF), which urged the Food Standards Agency to implement an improved routine of surveillance and investigation of foodborne viruses.
Experts on the ACMSF, which O’Brien chairs, also said an emerging risk of hepatitis A in pigs warranted its recommendation for work to investigate the heat inactivation of the strain.
Meanwhile, O’Brien will be speaking at Food Manufacture’s one-day food safety conference: ‘Safe and legal food in a changing world’, which takes place on October 15 at the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon, Warwickshire,
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