A major UK supermarket may have unintentionally infected thousands of people with a pig virus which causes liver and neurological problems, Public Health England has found.
The big chain, which has yet to be officially identified and is referred to as “Supermarket X”, has been implicated in the transmission of Hepatitis E, or HEV by new research.
HEV is transmitted by sausages and pork products from Europe, mainly Holland and Germany, the Sunday Times reported. Most infected people present few symptoms but others develop serious illness. UK-bred pork is not affected.
The government says of HEV on its website: “Pregnant women and older people, those with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic liver disease can experience more severe infections. These patients can require closer observation in case the infection affects their liver function.”
Official estimates place the numbers of Brits infected by HEV from pork products each year at 150,000-200,000.
Public Health England commissioned research into the issue in 2014 and it was completed two years later – but the findings were held from publication amid fears over “sensitivity”. It was finally published this summer.
It analysed the habits of those infected with a particular strand of HEV – and found Supermarket X’s own-brand raw pork sausages to be a common purchase among them.
Bengu Said and Professor Richard Tedder of PHE’s National Infection Service led the research, writing: “The implicated products are pork sausages, which require cooking prior to consumption, and ready-to-eat pre-packed sliced ham.”
They added: “Only Supermarket X, especially own brand, was significantly associated with HEV.”
When asked why it had chosen not to identify Supermarket X, PHE said: “The association with the supermarket does not infer any blame.”
Experts said the problem was one for all retailers and farmers.
But Harry Dalton, a gastroenterologist at Exeter University, told the newspaper: “In the past four years the number of HEV cases I see has surged. Three of my patients have died from HEV, all were older men with pre-existing liver damage.”