A UK supermarket may have unintentionally infected thousands of people with the Hepatitis E virus transmitted through sausages and pork products from Europe, health experts have warned.
Imported pork infects between 150,000 and 200,000 British people a year with the virus, the new research claims, and the products mainly come from Holland and Germany.
It is thought the infection could affect people in Wales and the Food Standards Agency in Wales says Hepatitis E (HEV) is “an emerging health issue”.
Hepatitis E, which is officially called HEV G3-2, can cause liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver which prevents it working properly) and neurological damage.
UK pigs do not have this particular virus strain.
The supermarket in question has not been named and instead researchers are referring to it as Supermarket X.
The products have been reported as pork sausages which need cooking before being ready to eat as well as ready-to-eat pre-packaged and sliced ham.
Authors of the report, who include Bengu Said and Professor Richard Tedder, said the nature of the infection is “dynamic” and have called for complex animal husbandry practices involved in meat production to be explored further.
Professor Tedder told the Sunday Times: “Something appears to have changed in animal husbandry so too many pigs are infected at slaughter. This is a problem for meat producers and all retailers, not just one.”
With the increase in figures of those affected, NHS Blood and Transplant have begun screening all donated blood and will do the same for donated organs and tissues in the future, The Times reports.
The research paper was based on monitoring the shopping of 60 infected people.
Most were said to suffer few symptoms however some develop serious illnesses, particularly those whose immune systems that may have been suppressed from other treatments.
It is estimated that up to 2% of people became ill.
One person interviewed had to go to intensive care after suffering a paralysed diaphragm when he contracted the virus from Dutch salami. He told The Times he had not recovered yet.
Dutch scientists claimed the virus is spread by collecting slaughtered pigs’ blood before adding it back to the meat after processing it but without sterilising it.
What does the Food Standards Agency say?
A spokesman from the Food Standards Agency said: “Although the number of reported cases are low compared to other foodborne pathogens, Hepatitis E (HEV) is an emerging health issue and one that the FSA takes seriously given the recent upward trend and particular risk to a small number of vulnerable groups, however the risk of acquiring hepatitis E from food is low.
“While 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.
“In 2015 a research workshop on foodborne viruses including hepatitis E was jointly organised by the FSA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that was attended by scientists and policy makers from many countries.
“This workshop provided a clear picture of the most pressing research priorities for hepatitis E virus and in particular highlighted the need to develop and validate a method to assess the infectivity of hepatitis E virus in food.
“As a result of this the FSA has recently published a research call to address this priority. In addition, the EFSA published a scientific opinion on hepatitis E in July 2017and we expect that the European Commission will start discussions on how this issue might be addressed across Europe.
“The FSA continuously reviews the latest scientific evidence such as those that you have flagged and uses this to inform it’s policy position including its research needs.
“We are aware of evidence gaps on the heat stability of this virus and the recent research call is seeking to provide the tools (infectivity assay) which will allow us to investigate this further.
“In the meantime, FSA advice remains that the best way of minimising 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.”