The press is full of reports that pork products sold at a leading UK supermarket may have infected shoppers with hepatitis E. Public Health England (PHE) decided to investigate after an increase in the number of people reporting hepatitis E infection and looked at the 60 people who had no history of travelling outside the UK.
Researchers found that Tesco’s ready to eat, pre-packed ham and own brand sausages was a recurring feature of the shopping habits of those 60 people. Dr Jenny Harries from PHE said: “Tesco was not named in our study because we attach no fault to the company. This study was a statistical analysis that found an association between clinical hepatitis E and sausage and ham products rather than direct causation.
“Most of the cases involved the G3-2 hepatitis E strain, which has not been found in UK pigs, and the appearance of this strain is likely to reflect complex animal health practices within Europe, rather than any processes used by the retailer. PHE understands all sausages sold under the Tesco brand are exclusively sourced within the UK.”
Fiona Sinclair, Director of leading UK food safety consultancy STS says: “There’s been little public awareness in the UK about hepatitis E and there are typically only a few hundred cases a year. This is on the rise, however, which is what prompted the PHE investigation. In 2010 there were 368 confirmed cases in the UK which rose to 1245 in 2016.
“It is estimated there are 20 million cases of hepatitis E worldwide per year, with this usually being waterborne or foodborne disease associated with drinking water or eating food in developing countries being contaminated with infected sewage from humans and animals. In the UK it is increasingly becoming a virus associated with undercooked pork products.
“The incubation period for hepatitis E is around 6 weeks but it can vary from 15-60 days. Typically it only causes relatively mild symptoms such as sickness, fever or muscle pain. These symptoms typically last for between 1-4 weeks however it can also affect the liver and be fatal. It is a particular concern for pregnant women and those with low immunity.
“Food safety advice surrounding hepatitis E is not new pork products should be thoroughly cooked, steaming hot throughout, with no pink inside and the juices run clear. This will help control any risk of hepatitis E, as well as destroying other pathogenic bacteria or parasitic worms which can be found in pork.”
Minaxi Modi is a Technical Auditor for STS. We asked her to address some of the food safety questions that have been raised by this case:
Supply chains for meat products can be long and complex and businesses should ensure that their meat is always sourced from an approved meat product supplier. Under EU legislation, animals are issued with a passport number from the farm prior to transportation to the abattoir. Primary cutting plants are required to have a site-based veterinary meat inspector to verify that the meat is suitable to enter the food chain and stamp each carcass with an abattoir number; unsuitable carcasses are clearly identified with penetrative dye indicating destruction, in order to prevent them from entering the food chain.
All businesses which handle raw meat or fish products, including primary/secondary butchers and manufacturing sites, must hold a license. This must be stated on food labels in accordance with the meat labeling regulations and other labeling requirements.
Under the meat regulations, the last distributor or manufacturer must ensure they can trace meat back to the originating farm. All documentation within the supply chain at each process step must contain the license number from the originating farm. The approval number will be noted on product packaging, and should be checked by retailers / food businesses during delivery. All food businesses should keep traceability records containing information on what has been delivered. They should also track which suppliers the delivery has come from, to facilitate in the event of a product recall. The move towards using local suppliers can be advantageous in terms of ease of tracing meat back to its source.
In terms of retailers and caterers, it is a fundamental requirement of the Food Safety and Hygiene Regulations 2006 that every food business must have a food safety system based on HACCP principles, to ensure that all reasonable precautions are taken to ensure the safety of products. The extent to which food businesses go to vet their suppliers depends on the nature and size of the business. Larger groups or retailers may employ their own team of food technologists to undertake supplier site inspections. They will also expect meat suppliers to have some form of demonstrable recognition. This is to show that the supplier is operating in a manner that produces consistently safe and legal products. Compliance with independent standards such as the BRC Global Food Safety Standard or the International Food Safety Standard result in graded certificates being issued by nominated certification bodies, such as STS.
Smaller businesses would usually rely on a meat supplier being reputable, tried and tested. However, it’s more common for processors or manufacturers to request that even the smallest meat supplier demonstrate due diligence. This includes proving consistent quality and traceability because of the legal implications. Smaller suppliers can demonstrate compliance by obtaining a certificate against the certification body’s own standards. They can also achieve this by passing unannounced meat inspections. These standards are recognised by UKAS, the overseeing body. It means they have approved the contents as being appropriate but are less onerous on the smaller meat supplier.
We would recommend that consumers follow the advice issued by the FSA, who have explained that the risk is low. The FSA and retailers issue a product recall for any food considered a threat to the public. This is done to withdraw it from the food chain. In this case they have deemed this to not be necessary. All product recalls are listed on the FSA website, as well as publicized in the press and in-store information. While this story has gained a lot of headlines, the actual risk to the public is minimal. This explains PHE and the FSA’s reluctance to “name and shame” the supermarket involved.