Pork products inadvertently sold by a leading UK supermarket may have infected consumers with a form of hepatitis that can cause liver damage, according to health officials.
In a report Public Health England (PHE) said researchers attempting to pinpoint a link between 60 people diagnosed with hepatitis E (HEV) found they had all eaten own-brand sausages and ready-to-eat sliced ham from an unnamed retailer known as ‘Supermarket X’.
“Sixty individuals with confirmed hepatitis E infection and no history of travel outside the UK were recruited,” the report said.
“Epidemiological data relating to usual shopping habits and consumption of ham and sausages were analysed together with typing data to identify any associations with HEV.
“Study participants who purchased ham and/or sausage from a major supermarket were more likely to have HEV G3-2 infection.”
HEV is spread when faeces infected with the virus finds its way into food and water, according to the British Liver Trust.
The report added the virus strain had not been found in British pigs and infections could be the result of eating products made outside the UK, mainly Germany and Holland and other European countries where the virus has been detected.
The researchers stressed that the findings did “not infer blame on the supermarket” and, along with the Food Standards Agency, said they would not be naming the store.
The study, which was carried out between 2014 and 2016, found that since 2010 human HEV infections have increased in the UK— with figures showing infections rising from 368 in 2010 to 1,243 in 2016.
Roy Williams, managing director at supply chain firm Vendigital, told SM that this was a classic example of what can go wrong if a supply chain is left to evolve without appropriate safeguards.
“The food industry can’t afford to do nothing about this—while food producers and retailers prioritise quality and safety standards, the constant nature of price pressure in a very competitive marketplace can chip away at this over time,” he said.
“If a lack of transparency is allowed to develop, contaminated food products can infiltrate supply chains and end up on supermarket shelves.”
Williams added that to avoid a crisis of confidence in the sector, the food industry should take steps to minimise exposure to risk by pursuing transparently at every level of the supply chain and having closer collaboration with suppliers.
The majority of people infected with HEV experience mild flu-like symptoms, fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting and aching joints and muscles, which last for a month. However, those with pre-existing liver conditions can experience chronic infection, liver cirrhosis and neurological damage.
In response to the findings NHS Blood and Transplant has tested blood donations for HEV and plans to screen donated organs and tissue for the virus, according to PHE.
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