Risks posed by foodborne pathogens are not static - Pew

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/Magone
©iStock/Magone

Related tags: Bacteria, Antibiotic resistance

Risks associated with meat and poultry have not remained static with some being successfully controlled or eliminated and others emerging, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The group said new microbial hazards will continue to emerge and some will be transmissible through the meat and poultry supply.

Improvements in surveillance, diagnostics, basic research and risk assessment can ensure better preparation for the next event, it added.

The report​ focuses on emerging and potential microbial hazards to human health associated with meat and poultry produced in the US.

Meat and poultry are responsible for sickening more than two million Americans each year.

Emergence of new risk

Changes in production practices or consumption patterns can result in new possibilities for introduction, proliferation and transmission of pathogens.

The emergence of new foodborne risks can be driven by the acquisition of new virulence or resistance characteristics, by demographic changes and associated increases in population susceptibility, or by emergence of pathogens in a new host species or geographic region.

Also new scientific knowledge may lead to the re-evaluation and re-prioritization of known risks.

Food producers and regulatory agencies must equip themselves with the technological and scientific tools necessary to anticipate, recognize, and respond to new foodborne threats as risks posed by foodborne pathogens do not remain static.

The US should improve surveillance by expanding sampling of food animals, production environments, and retail meats for antimicrobial resistant bacteria and continue developing improved surveillance systems (such as whole genome sequencing capacity).

It also needs to increase research that characterizes and quantifies risks posed by pathogens for which foodborne transmission is unclear such as C. difficile, multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and hepatitis E virus.

Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s safe food project, said ensuring safety means being vigilant along every step of the production and supply chain.

“It’s not enough to monitor for threats we already know exist, and to do so only in the most obvious place,” ​she said.

“A fundamental challenge of food safety oversight is that regulators and food producers typically do not know how and when new, dangerous foodborne pathogens will develop​. Scientific, prevention-based measures are critical to addressing new hazards head-on.”

Unknown risk

Pathogens can be introduced at any point along the food chain - from when the animal is raised, to the day of slaughter and up to consumption of the meat or poultry product.

New strains of existing disease agents continue to emerge, along with previously unknown pathogens such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

Because they are “new” pathogens, many aspects related to epidemiology, transmission dynamics, and public health risk are initially unknown, and vaccines or treatments not available.

Technological advances such as next-generation (or high-throughput) sequencing and new phylogenetic methods, with improved surveillance and collaboration among public and private entities, allow EPs to be characterized and controlled more rapidly than before.

Some emerging pathogens, such as E. coli O157:H7, have developed into major concerns. For others, such as the hepatitis E virus (HEV), the importance of exposure through meat is uncertain.

The report also includes pathogens, such as Listeria monocytogenes or Yersinia enterocolitica that have become widely established in the meat and poultry supply.

Steps to mitigate risk

It outlines prediction, detection, capacity building and leadership and oversight as ways to confront challenge posed by emerging pathogens.

Prediction involves supporting efforts to understand what factors lead to emergence of new pathogens, to identify clues for predicting and mitigating risk of future disease emergence and identifying trends in the food chain that may lead to disease emergence.

Detection is building surveillance systems and diagnostic tools that can detect EPs early and distinguish them from other microbes that occasionally occur but never pose a public health risk.

Developing regulatory approaches, tools, and infrastructure (e.g., rapid risk assessments, expert panels) to foster quick responses in the face of large uncertainty, is part of capacity building.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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