Hepatitis E in Pork

There is usually one food scare or another in the media to keep us on our toes and, after the furore over horse meat found in some products had died down, the latest to hit the front pages is the risk of Hepatitis E in pork. This story broke last week in the papers but it is not news to everybody.  Several studies have already been carried out to investigate these reports and the findings are interesting.

Hepatitis E (HEV) is a virus that affects the liver and the main symptoms include jaundice, pale stools and darker than normal colouration of urine.  The good news is that it is a virus the body’s natural defence system can deal with and it usually resolves itself fairly quickly.  Some cases can be more serious for those with pre-existing immune conditions or pregnant women, so it is always advisable to see a doctor.

In countries where sanitation is poor, it is most commonly transmitted through water and food contaminated with sewage from infected people and animals.  In other countries, it can be spread from animals to humans, mostly through undercooked pork and sometimes processed pork.  HEV is widely found in pigs, hence the suspected risk.  It is highly unusual for humans to contract it from another human.

In recent years, there has been a significant rise in cases of HEV in a number of developed countries, including Japan, France, the Netherlands, the US and the UK.  Those mostly affected tend to be men over the age of 50.  A study was carried out in 2009-10 by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge that found there was evidence that the virus was potentially passed on during pork production.  They collected samples from slaughtered pigs at various points of manufacture, right through to the final product which lands on our shelves.  As a rule, the percentage of the virus found in samples of point of sale items was low, but it was discovered.  Of 63 sausages tested, 6 were found to contain the virus.

A later study in 2013, initiated by Defra and backed by other public bodies including the Food Standards Agency and Public Health England, concluded that, of the approximately 60,000 human cases of HEV in the UK each year, two thirds in England were NOT transmitted from UK pig products.

What does this mean for us?  It is apparent there is a very small risk that some point of sale pork products could contain HEV, however, most products you buy at the supermarket will be safe.   Make sure you buy your pork products from a trusted source.  All good suppliers will only purchase meat from approved outlets and abattoirs with robust HACCP and food safety management systems in place.  Since these studies were carried out, it is likely that even more stringent procedures will have been implemented by any good manufacturer.

The Food Standards Agency advises that, when cooking pork, it should be ‘thoroughly cooked until steaming hot throughout, the meat is no longer pink and the juices run clear.’  This will minimise any risk of any foodborne illness, not just HEV.

Finally, if we even need to say it, always remember to wash your hands thoroughly before and after preparing pork and clean and disinfect the equipment and utensils used thoroughly to avoid cross contamination!