GLOBAL – In a recent conclave of international food safety experts, the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Meeting on Microbiological Risk Assessment (JEMRA) made significant strides in safeguarding global food hygiene.

This critical assembly served to update the Codex Alimentarius General Principles of Food Hygiene, particularly focusing on the Control of Viruses in Foods (CXG-079-2012).

JEMRA undertook the vital task of evaluating the current scientific landscape, available data, and evidence to enhance food safety standards. This endeavor aimed to provide essential updates on foodborne viruses, analytical methods for detecting them in food commodities, and potential indicators of contamination.

The consensus reached by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Meeting on Microbiological Risk Assessment (JEMRA) underscores the gravity of three major foodborne viruses.

Norovirus, an exceptionally contagious pathogen, inflicts an estimated 125 million cases of foodborne illness and claims 35,000 lives worldwide annually.

Its alarming ability to spread, even in the presence of low food contamination levels, makes it a significant threat, especially to vulnerable populations such as young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.

Hepatitis A, responsible for around 14 million cases of foodborne illness and 28,000 deaths yearly, exhibits varying prevalence due to regional factors and vaccination disparities. Its transmission is further complicated by international food trade.

Hepatitis E, distinctively zoonotic, finds its origins in swine and lacks a global estimate of food-related cases. Nonetheless, countries with comprehensive investigations indicate a substantial burden.

Undercooked pork products, notably liver and raw sausages, remain the primary source of infection, underlining the urgent need for heightened vigilance and safety measures in food handling and preparation.

Analytical methods and contamination indicators

Since the last report in 2008, global efforts have resulted in standardized methods for detecting norovirus and hepatitis A virus in foods. Widely adopted International Organization for Standardization (ISO) methods have been instrumental in improving safety practices.

These methods, based on the detection of viral nucleic acids, still face challenges such as food complexity and low contamination levels. Continued research and data sharing are essential to refine and expand these methods, possibly addressing other viruses and matrices.

JEMRA acknowledged that several challenges persist in understanding and controlling foodborne viruses.

The need for infectivity assays to distinguish between infectious and noninfectious viruses is a significant one. Although in vitro propagation models have been developed for norovirus and hepatitis E, they are not yet suitable for routine use.

JEMRA’s recommendation to member countries is to strengthen their capacities for virus detection in foods and the environment. This proactive approach can enhance our understanding of food attribution, support risk analysis, and ultimately reduce the global burden of viral foodborne diseases.

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