The four year EuroCigua project is developing methods to identify and quantify ciguatoxin in fish and microalgae in European waters.
It is co-funded by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and 14 European organizations.
Detection and reporting challenge
Scientists are looking at the time-based and geographic distribution in European waters of the Gambierdiscus spp. microorganism responsible for poisoning.
Detection of ciguatoxins is putting high demands on analytical methods as they are effective in very low concentrations and occur in different chemical structures - depending on the catch area.
Currently, no analytical methods are available for routine testing of fish for ciguatoxins. Bioassays have traditionally been used to monitor suspected fish.
Project partners, led by La Agencia Española de Consumo, Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutrición (AECOSAN), are also creating standards and reference materials.
Ciguatera is caused by ingestion of fish contaminated by ciguatera toxins. Ciguatoxin poisoning is triggered by metabolites of microalgae whose natural habitat is in the coral reefs of the Caribbean as well as the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Increasing European problem
It has been reported with increasing frequency in Europe, in particular on Spanish and Portuguese islands in the Atlantic since 2008 but also in Germany there has been at least one ciguatera outbreak with up to 20 affected people every year since 2012.
In Spain, up to 11 outbreaks have been detected in the Canary Islands between 2008 and 2014, affecting 96 people.
Global trade of imported fish is one reason for increasing occurrence of such poisoning in Europe.
The Bayern Ministry of Consumer Protection advised against eating certain "Red Snapper" fish fillet from Vietnam after cases of ciguatera poisoning by algae toxins earlier this year.
The agency said 11 cases of illness had been reported linked to the frozen Red Snapper fish fillet.
Professor Dr Andreas Hensel, The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) president, said "Ciguatera is a very rare form of fish poisoning in Germany. The reported cases have been caused by the consumption of contaminated tropical predatory fish such as various snapper species."
These include Lutjanus bohar (two-spot red snapper), Lutjanus argentimaculatus, Lutjanus erythropterus (crimson snapper) or Pinjalo pinjalo.
Ciguatoxin is heat-stable and is not destroyed during cooking or freezing and is colourless, odourless and tasteless.
Poisoning is accompanied by clinical symptoms including gastrointestinal and especially neurological disorders such as the reversal of cold-hot sensitivity.