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


  • 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).

Die Rolle der EFSA

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.

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.


Aktivitäten der EFSA

Main work in progress

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



Letzte Aktualisierung: 26 Februar 2015