The new strain of hepatitis E (HEV) has been linked to pig farms in Holland, France, Denmark and Germany which is affecting more than 60,000 people in Britain a year, according to The Times.
HEV is a virus, which can infect humans and animals, according to Public Health England (PHE) and in rare cases, can prove fatal, particularly in pregnant women and transplant patients.
The Times also reported figures from PHE that showed a rise in serious illnesses from 368 in 2010 to 1,244 in 2016.
A gastroenterologist at Exeter University, Dr Harry Dalton, told a conference that HEV had become a major threat and hailed it “the Brexit virus because “[it] seems to come from Europe”.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) issued a statement following reports in national newspapers about pigs containing the Hepatitis E virus (HEV).
It said: “Following media reports, we wanted to remind consumers of our advice about cooking pork thoroughly.
“We always advise that whole cuts of pork, pork products and offal should be thoroughly cooked until steaming hot throughout, the meat is no longer pink and juices run clear.”
Ideal cooking temperature
BHA food safety advisor Lisa Ackerley urged operators to follow the FSA’s advice and to follow their individual hygiene plans.
She said: “For the catering industry, your food safety management system should have the controls for cooking pork (which it is recommended should reach 75°C) and any other product containing meat.
“The food safety management system should include information about cross-contamination too, and don’t forget about washing your hands after handling raw products. Use the disinfection procedures after handling raw meat.
“Follow the BHA catering guide. That will have all the tips needed. This is the catering guide for food-hygiene practice which is endorsed by the FSA and Food Standards Scotland.”
The National Pig Association (NPA) responded to the media and said the reports quoted a study showing the virus had spread to more than 90% of British pigs and it referred to research, which suggested 10% of sausages could be affected.
According to the NPA, pigs are a natural reservoir for HEV and infection is present in pig populations worldwide.
Samples collected in 2013 as a part of a survey of UK slaughter pigs found the virus in 129 out of 629 (20.5%) pigs, while 93% tested positive for HEV antibodies, indicating exposure at some point in life.
However, the high-level presence of the virus to a level that could be infectious to humans via consumption of the raw pig meat was only found in six of the 629 pigs sampled.
Thoroughly cooking pork
In this survey, the majority of the viral samples belonged to a different subgroup to that causing infections in humans.
The NPA also urged caution on the suggestion that 10% of sausages could be infected.
The finding was from a limited sample size of 63 sausages from 11 batches. While six sausages tested positive for HEV, five of these were from the same batch and the origin of the meat was not known.
In the UK, sausages with the Red Tractor logo are not permitted to include liver or offal, which reduces the risk of contamination compared with countries where liver and blood sausages are popular.
The NPA said: “Research at PHE has shown that the subgroup of hepatitis E causing the majority of human infection in the UK is not the same as the subgroup found in UK pigs.
“The NPA agrees with the conclusion of the researchers that if people in this country have contracted HEV from eating pork, it is likely to have come from imported pork, rather than British pork.
“AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) Pork has commissioned a number of research projects to better understand HEV presence on British pig farms and the risk to public health.
“Further research and surveillance is required to determine the true cause of the rise in hepatitis E cases in the UK.
The organisation echoed the comments from the FSA that pork and sausages should be cooked thoroughly until steaming hot throughout, with no pink or red in the centre, to greatly reduce the risk of infection.