Industry plays down Hepatitis E scare stories

The meat industry has played down national newspaper reports this weekend, linking consumption of pork products sold by one UK supermarket to consumers contracting Hepatitis E (Hep E).

The coverage was mainly based on a paper written by a team of four researchers, led by Dr Bengu Said, an epidemiologist at Public Health England (PHE), and published online on 31 July by the journal of Epidemiology & Infection. The paper stated that shoppers who bought ham and sausages from one unnamed supermarket were more likely to have been infected by a newly emerging strain of Hep E than those who shopped at other retailers.

The industry argued the study used old evidence, that no pork products were tested to confirm the link cited and that latest reports suggested the number of UK Hep E cases was not rising.

Over the weekend, the mainstream media reported that thousands of Britons could have been exposed to the Hep E virus after eating pork products sourced from overseas and sold in the UK.

Responding to questions about whether it was the unnamed retailer cited by the paper, Tesco did not say. In a statement, it said: “We work very closely with the FSA [Food Standards Agency] and PHE to make sure customers can be confident in the safety and quality of the food they buy.

“This particular research was carried out six years ago on a small number of people, and although it provided no direct link between specific products and Hepatitis E, we always take care to review research findings such as this.

“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.”

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said the number of cases of Hepatitis E was actually falling.

“Historically, consumption of undercooked pork liver and raw blood sausage have unsurprisingly been linked to Hepatitis E infections in humans, though other possible sources include wild boar, deer and shellfish,” the BMPA said in a statement.  

“In 2016, people in the UK consumed 1.7 million tonnes of pigmeat. In comparison to the significant quantity of pork consumed, the level of Hepatitis E infection is extremely small, suggesting that pork remains a safe and nutritious meal choice for UK consumers. The latest government Hepatitis E case figures issued in the Health Protection Report on 11 August highlight the continuing decline in case numbers, which was first noted in 2016 and has continued dropping in 2017.

“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.”

Emerging health issue

Despite admitting that the number of reported cases was low, compared to other foodborne pathogens, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it treated Hepatitis E as an emerging health issue.

“Whilst there are no restrictions on trade, the FSA is taking action and we are keen to improve our understanding of the contribution that foodborne transmission makes and are actively working with the food industry including retailers and manufacturers on this,” said the FSA.

“In 2015 a research workshop on foodborne viruses, including Hepatitis E, was jointly organised by the FSA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and was attended by scientists and policy-makers from many countries.”

The agency said the workshops highlighted a need to develop and validate a method of assessing the infectivity of Hepatitis E in food. It said: “As a result of this, the FSA has recently published a research call to address this priority. In addition, EFSA published a scientific opinion on Hepatitis E in July 2017 and we expect that the European Commission will start discussions on how this issue might be addressed across Europe.”

The FSA told Meat Trades Journal that it was continuing to review the latest scientific evidence and would investigate this issue further. “In the meantime, FSA advice remains that the best way of minimising the risk of Hepatitis E infection is to cook all whole cuts of pork, pork products and offal thoroughly, until steaming hot throughout, the meat is no longer pink and any juices run clear. EFSA provides the same advice.”

Data from PHE showed there were 1,243 reported cases of Hepatitis E in 2016. While this represented an increase of 30 since 2015, PHE figures indicated the number of cases has plateaued for this year. For January to June 2017, there have been 457 cases.

Symptoms of Hepatitis E can vary, from showing no apparent signs of the illness, to liver failure. It can also cause fever, fatigue and nausea, among other symptoms. People with suppressed immune systems, including pregnant women, are at particular risk.

Meat Trades Journal has contacted other major supermarkets about the national press coverage, but has yet to receive a reply.

The 31 July paper, Pork products associated with human infection caused by an emerging phylotype of hepatitis E virus in England and Wales, stated: “Study participants who purchased ham and/or sausage from a major supermarket were more likely to have HEV G3-2 infection…

“The HEV G3-2 phylotype has not been detected in indigenous UK pigs and it is suggested that human infections could be the result of consumption of products made from pork originating outside the UK. This does not infer blame on the supermarket, but the epidemiology of HEV is dynamic and reflects complex animal husbandry practices, which need to be explored further.”

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