Knowledge Based Bio-Economy

Watching what we eat – a new report from EFSA on zoonotic diseases

Zoonoses are illnesses with a difference – you don’t catch them first from fellow travellers on the bus, or friends at a party. Rather, they are infectious diseases that jump the species barrier, such as variants of the Ebola virus that pass from chimpanzees to humans; anthrax and rabies are other rare but frightening examples.

Zoonoses are important because they form some 60% of identified pathogens that affect people, and they are often food borne. This context makes the publication of a recent report on the occurrence of zoonoses, including food-borne outbreaks – a significant event for researchers and policy-makers.

Compiled from data submitted by the 27 EU Member States, and prepared by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the report presents 2011 statistics on some of the more common zoonoses. The most common – the food-poisoning bacteria Campylobacter – accounted for 22 209 confirmed cases in 2011– and remains particularly high in poultry broiler meat.

On the other hand, human Salmonella cases fell, as did confirmed cases of Listeria poisoning – a disease with 20% mortality in overt form, yet which the report reassuringly finds was seldom detected above the legal safety limit in ready-to-eat foods.

Other zoonoses are on the rise however. Reported Escherichia coli (E coli) infections – a food-borne bacterium – rose by 159%, as did other pig and bovine borne diseases. Only one imported human case of rabies was reported, and the occurrence in animals continued to fall.

Most of the 5 648 reported food-borne outbreaks – which resulted in 69 553 human cases, 7 125 hospitalisations and 93 deaths – were caused by Salmonella, bacterial toxins, Campylobacter and viruses. The main food sources were eggs, mixed foods and fish and fishery products.

The European Union Summary Report on Trends and Sources of Zoonoses, Zoonotic Agents and Food-borne Outbreaks in 2011