Parasites in food

Introduction

Parasites are organisms that derive nourishment and protection from other living organisms known as hosts. When found in food, they can cause diseases in humans. More than 1,000 human cases of food-borne parasitic infections are reported in the European Union each year.

To protect consumers from this public health threat, the EU has adopted an integrated approach to food safety from farm to fork. The approach consists of both risk assessment and risk management measures involving all key actors: EU Member States, European Commission, European Parliament, EFSA and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). It is supported by timely and effective risk communication activities.

EFSA plays an important role in protecting the public from this threat by providing independent scientific support and advice on the human health and food safety-related aspects of parasites in food.

Some parasites, such as Trichinella, Toxoplasma and Giardia can be directly or indirectly transmitted between animals and humans through the consumption of contaminated food or drinking water. Health effects of foodborne parasitic infections vary greatly depending on the type of parasite, ranging from mild discomfort to debilitating illness and possibly death. Parasites can also be transmitted to humans or other animals by vectorsA carrier of a disease-causing agent from an infected individual to a non-infected individual or its food or environment; for example, mosquitoes carrying malaria parasites..

Safe handling of food and good kitchen hygiene can prevent or reduce the risk posed by contaminated foodstuffs.

Milestones

2018 EFSA reviews methods for detection, identification and tracing of three parasites that may be transmitted through food – Cryptosporidium spp.,Toxoplasma gondii, and Echinococcus spp. Experts also review literature on foodborne pathways, examine information on occurrence in foods, and investigate possible control measures along the food chain.

2015 Experts assess the public health risks posed by pathogens (disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites) that may contaminate foods of non animal-origin such as fruits, vegetables, cereals and spices. This is the last of a series of scientific opinions published over four years.

2010 EFSA assesses food safety concerns resulting from possible allergic reactions to parasites in a range of fish products and to assess methods to reduce risks of infection. Experts conclude that the only parasite in fish products for human consumption likely to cause allergic reactions is Anisakis, a worm whose larvae can be found in fish flesh.

Role

EFSA provides independent scientific advice and scientific assistance by collecting and analysing data on the prevalence of parasites in the food chain as well as by assessing the risks posed by these parasites and advising on control and mitigation options.

EFSA’s findings are used by risk managers in the EU and the Member States to help inform policy, and to support the setting of control measures.

Annual monitoring of parasites in animals and food

EU-wide data on the presence of parasites in the food chain and on the prevalence of animal and human infection are collected and analysed in annual EU summary reports prepared by EFSA and ECDC. The monitoring data are used with other information to evaluate the progress made in EU Member States in reducing the prevalence of these parasites.

Risk assessments and recommendations

EFSA’s Panel on Biological Hazards evaluates the food safety risks of parasites and provides scientific advice on control options at the request of risk managers or on its own initiative.

EU framework

The monitoring and control of foodborne diseases as well as food hygiene requirements and food safety criteria are regulated by EU legislation. For details on the regulatory framework, see the topic on Foodborne zoonotic diseases.