Food-borne zoonotic diseases


Zoonoses are infections or diseases that can be transmitted directly or indirectly between animals and humans, for instance by consuming contaminated foodstuffs or through contact with infected animals. The severity of these diseases in humans varies from mild symptoms to life-threatening conditions.

Food-borne zoonotic diseases are caused by consuming food or drinking water contaminated by pathogenic (disease-causing) micro-organisms such as bacteria and their toxins, viruses and parasites. They enter the body through the gastrointestinal tract where the first symptoms often occur. Many of these micro-organisms are commonly found in the intestines of healthy food-producing animals. The risks of contamination are present from farm to fork and require prevention and control throughout the food chain.

Food-borne zoonotic diseases are a significant and widespread global public health threat. In the European Union (EU), over 320,000 human cases are reported each year, but the real number is likely to be much higher.

To protect consumers from this food-borne zoonoses, the EU has adopted an integrated approach to food safety from the farm to the fork. The approach consists of both risk assessment (e.g. data collection, analysis, recommendations) and risk management (e.g. legislative measures, targets for reduction) measures involving all key actors; EU Member States, European Commission, European Parliament, EFSA, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and economic operators. The approach is supported by timely and effective risk communication activities. A coordinated approach by the EU and Member States helped to reduce human Salmonella cases by almost one-half over a five-year period (2004-2009), from 196,000 cases in 2004 to 108,000 cases in 2009.

How food becomes contaminated

Food can become contaminated at different stages of the food chain. These may include:

At the farm
  • Animal feed can be contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella which can cause infection in animals and potentially lead to human infection from derived food products
  • Parasites may infect food producing animals
  • Milk can be contaminated by coming into contact with for example faeces or environmental dust
  • Animal skin and fur can be contaminated by faeces and environment
  • Eggs and different vegetables can also be contaminated at the farm
During slaughter
  • Meat can be contaminated by coming into contact with intestinal contents or animal skin
During further processing
  • Micro-organisms present in another raw agricultural product or on food contact surfaces may contaminate food
  • Infected humans handling food may contaminate food
In the kitchen
  • Microbes can be transferred from one food to another by improper use of kitchen utensils or by infected humans handling the food

Safe handling of raw meat and other raw food ingredients, thorough cooking and good kitchen hygiene can prevent or reduce the risk posed by these micro-organisms.

Common food-borne diseases

Common micro-organisms that cause food-borne diseases are:

  • Campylobacter (causing campylobacteriosis), Salmonella (causing salmonellosis), Listeria (causing listeriosis), Pathogenic Escherichia coli (E. coli), Yersinia
Bacterial toxins
  • Toxins of Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium botulinum and Bacillus cereus
  • Calicivirus (including norovirus), rotavirus, hepatitis A virus, hepatitis E virus
  • Infected humans handling food may contaminate food
  • Trichinella, Toxoplasma, Cryptosporidium, Giardia

The infectious agent which causes Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle can also be transmitted to humans through consumption of contaminated meat causing variant Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease. Unlike other food-borne diseases which are spread by micro-organisms, BSE is caused by a prion, which is an abnormal form of a protein (known as PrPc).


Main work in progress

Information on ongoing work regarding different food-borne infections is available in the following sections:




EFSA’s main role is to assess risks associated with the EU food chain, ensuring a high level of consumer protection and animal health. EFSA’s independent scientific advice and scientific assistance on the food safety and animal health-related aspects of zoonotic diseases supported by data collected in Member States help European decision-makers in setting policies and making decisions to protect consumers in the European Union.

EFSA provides independent scientific advice through:

  • collecting and analysing data which enables the monitoring of risks in collaboration with ECDC on zoonotic micro-organisms in human and animal populations and in food and feed as well as data on food-borne outbreaks;
  • assessing the risks throughout the food chain for human health and also the risks for animal health, and making recommendations on the prevention and reduction of food-borne zoonoses.

EU actors dealing with zoonoses

EFSA’s Biological Monitoring Unit analyses monitoring data on zoonoses, zoonotic micro-organisms, antimicrobial resistance, microbiological contaminants and food-borne outbreaks across the EU. The unit is assisted by EFSA’s Task Force on Zoonoses Data Collection: a pan-European network of national representatives of EU Member States, other reporting countries, as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The unit also provides guidance to national authorities on how to carry out monitoring and reporting activities on zoonoses, food-borne outbreaks and antimicrobial resistance.

EFSA's Biological Monitoring Unit produces baseline survey reports on the prevalence of zoonotic micro-organisms in the EU in foods and specific animal populations. The findings are used by risk assessors such as the Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ Panel) to provide risk estimates and also by risk managers to define possible control options and/or reduction targets.

EFSA’s BIOHAZ Panel provides scientific advice on biological hazards in relation to food safety, including zoonotic diseases. It assesses the risks posed by a given hazard and provides advice on possible control options. The Panel’s risk assessment work helps provide a sound foundation for European policies and legislation, and supports risk managers in making effective and timely decisions to protect consumers. EFSA also provides scientific advice to risk managers on the risks to human and animal health of the possible emergence, spread and transfer to humans of antimicrobial resistance through the food chain.

Based on data collected by the EU Member States, EFSA`s Biological Monitoring Unit produces in cooperation with ECDC annual European Union Summary Reports on zoonotic infections and food-borne outbreaks monitoring the evolving situation in Europe.


The monitoring and control of food-borne diseases as well as food hygiene requirements and food safety criteria are regulated by EU legislation.

EU food hygiene legislation sets out hygiene requirements for food producers and operators and provides rules for official controls of fresh meat, milk and other foods. This is an important regulatory basis for minimising the prevalence of food-borne diseases throughout the food chain.

The monitoring and control of food-borne diseases is regulated by EU legislation on zoonoses and communicable diseases. The EU has set up a system of collecting and analysing data from the Member States on the number of human cases and the prevalence of zoonotic microorganisms in different foodstuffs and animal populations. The data provide a basis for developing, monitoring and implementation of control measures to prevent and reduce these microorganisms in the food chain.

EU measures are also in place to control specific food-borne zoonotic agents, such as Salmonella and parasites. These include mandatory meat inspections and trade restrictions on eggs and live poultry from third countries. The European Commission has also set targets that Member States need to meet to reduce Salmonella in different animal populations, including chickens and turkeys.

Food safety criteria have also been defined for certain important food-borne bacteria and their toxins, including Salmonella and Listeria, in specific foodstuffs. In order to ensure the safety and quality of foods, food business operators and national food safety authorities perform tests against these criteria. Ultimately the safety of foodstuffs needs to be ensured by a preventative approach applying internationally recognised standards such as Good Hygiene and Manufacturing Practices (GHP and GMP) and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. These standards have to be applied at each stage of food production, processing and distribution by food business operators.