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Keep diarrhoea and jaundice at bay

20/2020, 05.06.2020

Food Safety Day: How to protect yourself from viruses

When it comes to "viruses", most people think of "corona" these days. But the transmission of this novel corona virus in food is unlikely and has not been proven. In food, however, other viruses are feared as the cause of illness. There are four main culprits: Noroviruses and rotaviruses and the pathogens causing hepatitis A and E. On the occasion of the "World Food Safety Day" on June 7 2020, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) points out how consumers can protect themselves against these pathogens. "If you follow simple kitchen hygiene rules, you can significantly reduce the risk of infection," says BfR President Professor Andreas Hensel.

"Profiles" of the four most common viruses in food are presented here:

  • Noroviruses: They trigger gastrointestinal illnesses in humans, which can be associated with diarrhoea and vomiting. In addition to direct human-to-human infections or contaminated surfaces, the pathogen is often transmitted to other people through raw foodstuff such as lettuce, fruit and seafood. Frozen berries may also contain viable noroviruses, as they are not affected by the cold. The total number of cases recorded in Germany at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in 2019 (including food transmission): 78,679.
  • Rotaviruses: Rotaviruses also cause gastrointestinal illnesses in humans, which lead to diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Small children are particularly at risk. In rare cases, the virus can also be transmitted to other people via food. The total number of cases recorded at the RKI in 2019: 36,876.
  • Hepatitis A virus: The virus can cause acute inflammation of the liver (infectious jaundice) in humans. Infection most frequently occurs via consumption of contaminated food or drinking water when travelling abroad, but in some cases also via imported food. The total number of cases recorded at the RKI in 2019: 873.
  • Hepatitis E virus: The disease is similar to the inflammation of the liver caused by hepatitis A virus. The pathogen is often transmitted via insufficiently heated food originating from domestic pigs and wild boars. The animals can be infected without showing signs of disease. In this case, the virus is typically already in the food and not on it. The total number of cases recorded at the RKI in 2019: 3,725.

Most food pathogens are sensitive to heat. Therefore food should be heated at 70 degrees Celsius or more for at least two minutes. It is advisable to also heat frozen berries sufficiently before consumption. Foods that are consumed raw such as salad and fruit should be washed thoroughly. Avoid contact between raw and ready-to-eat foods (e.g. between raw meat and lettuce) because pathogens can be transferred to the ready-to-eat food (cross-contamination).

A new National Reference Laboratory for food-borne viruses was set up at the BfR at the end of 2019. It conducts research on this group of pathogens and on their (often difficult) detection in food and advises the food control authorities of the German federal states ("Laender").

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the German federal government and German federal states ("Laender") on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.

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