EFSA: No evidence Ebola virus can be transmitted through food

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

The risk of transmission of Ebola virus from eating raw foods was assessed
The risk of transmission of Ebola virus from eating raw foods was assessed

Related tags: Microbiology

The risk of transmission of the Ebola virus via food imported into the EU remains a theoretical possibility only and has never been demonstrated in practice, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

However, the uncertainty around the Zaïre Ebola virus (ZEBOV) is high given the lack of data.

EFSA assessed the risk of foodborne transmission of Ebola virus to people in Europe from eating raw food other than bushmeat imported from African countries where human outbreaks due to ZEBOV have occurred.

The agency previously concluded that risk of transmission of Ebola through bushmeat illegally imported into Europe from Western and Central Africa was low but there were high uncertainties​.

Import into the EU of any fresh meat from Western African countries is not authorised.

The latest assessment looked at transmission from eating raw foods​ – such as plants, fruits and vegetables – legally imported into the EU from African countries.

Combined assessment approach

‘Top-down’ (e.g. surveillance-based) and ‘bottom-up’ approaches (e.g. using the standard microbial risk assessment paradigm, where the agent is followed through the food chain to produce a prediction of risk to human health relative to other agents and/or foods) were combined.

Food other than bushmeat has never been identified as associated with human ZEBOV cases, said the report using the ‘top-down’ approach.

Using the ‘bottom-up’ approach, lack of data and knowledge resulted in very high uncertainty, meaning it was not possible to quantify risk of foodborne transmission or whether it could occur at all.

“The necessary sequence of events involves many hurdles: the raw food to be exported has to be contaminated with ZEBOV at the point of origin.  

“The imported food needs to contain viable virus when it arrives in the EU; the person has to be exposed to the virus through the handling and preparation as well as consumption of contaminated food; and the person needs to get infected following exposure.

“Each of these steps is necessary for a case to occur and none have been documented in practice.”

Ebola in detail

Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Senegal are allowed to export fruits and vegetables into the EU, with the exception of potatoes.

Human outbreaks due to ZEBOV have been reported in all these countries. Ebola virus is thought to circulate in wild animals in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ebola viruses are considered to be highly transmissible to and among humans by direct contact with infected blood and other bodily fluids/secretions, tissues, organs from dead or living infected people.

Between December 2013 and 11 March 2015, 24,282 human cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD), including 9,976 deaths have been reported, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data.

EFSA said no references provided useful information to support the possibility of foodborne transmission of ZEBOV, or about occurrence in food other than bushmeat.

Food could be contaminated via infected wildlife, infected livestock and pets, the environment and infected food handlers.

No information is available on the potential for ZEBOV to internalise within, or survive on, foods.

Whether the virus survives in contaminated food or not will depend on how and for how long food is transported and stored, how it is handled and the method of food preparation, with complete inactivation expected in thoroughly cooked food and variable degrees of virus survival for products consumed without further cooking (e.g. fresh leafy greens).

MERS-CoV update

In a separate outbreak, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) updated reports of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

Since April 2012 and as of 7 March, 1,082 cases (including 439 deaths) have been reported.

The source of infection and mode of transmission have still not been confirmed.

WHO is advising people to avoid drinking raw camel milk or camel urine, or eating meat that has not been properly cooked.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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