Zoonotic diseases are caused by infections that spread between animals and people. The severity of these diseases in humans varies from mild to life-threatening.
Foodborne zoonotic diseases are caused by consumption of food or water contaminated by pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms such as bacteria, 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.
The most common foodborne diseases are caused by Campylobacter, Salmonella, Yersinia, E. coli and Listeria. Foodborne zoonotic diseases are a significant and widespread global public health threat. In the European Union, over 350,000 human cases are reported each year, but the real number is likely to be higher.
To protect consumers, the EU has adopted an integrated approach to food safety from farm to fork. It consists of risk assessment (e.g. data collection, analysis, recommendations) and risk management (e.g. legislative measures, targets for reduction) measures. It is supported by timely and effective risk communication.
How does food become contaminated?
Contamination can occur at any point along the chain — at farm, slaughter, during processing or preparation. It can also occur at home if food is incorrectly handled or cooked.
Main causes at farm level
- Animal feed contaminated with bacteria that cause infections in animals.
- Parasites that infect food-producing animals.
- Milk contaminated through contact with faeces or environmental dust.
- Animal skin and fur contaminated by faeces and environment.
- Meat contaminated by intestinal contents.
- Food contaminated by microorganisms present in other raw agricultural products or on food contact surfaces.
- Food handled by infected people.
- Improper use of utensils or kitchen surfaces, which can contribute to the spread of bacteria. 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 microorganisms.
- Understanding Science video: What are foodborne zoonotic pathogens? Why are they important for public health?
- Five keys to safer food – World Health Organisation (WHO)
What are the most common causes of foodborne disease?
Most foodborne diseases are caused by Campylobacter, Salmonella, Yersinia, E. coli and Listeria.
Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria, Pathogenic Escherichia coli (E. coli), Yersinia
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
EFSA works with its sister agency, the European Centre for Disease prevention and Control (ECDC), and EU Member States to provide independent scientific advice on foodborne zoonotic diseases to decision-makers at national and European level.
Data collection and analysis
EFSA analyses monitoring data on zoonotic diseases, zoonotic microorganisms in humans and animals and in food and feed as well as foodborne outbreaks, in cooperation with ECDC.
Based on data collected by the EU Member States, EFSA produces in cooperation with ECDC annual summary reports on zoonotic infections and foodborne outbreaks.
EFSA also provides guidance to national authorities on how to carry out monitoring and reporting activities on zoonoses, foodborne outbreaks and antimicrobial resistance.
EFSA produces baseline survey reports on the prevalence of zoonotic microorganisms in the EU in foods and specific animals. The findings are used by risk assessors such as EFSA’s Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ Panel) to provide risk estimates and by risk managers to define possible control options or reduction targets.
EFSA’s BIOHAZ Panel provides scientific advice on biological hazards in relation to food safety, including foodborne zoonotic diseases. It assesses the risks posed by a given pathogen and provides advice on possible control options.
The panel’s risk assessment work provides a sound foundation for European policies and legislation, and supports risk managers in making decisions to protect consumers.
EU food hygiene legislation sets out requirements for food producers and operators and provides rules for official controls of fresh meat, milk and other foods.
EU legislation regulates the monitoring and control of foodborne diseases. The EU has a system for collecting and analysing data from Member States on the number of human cases and the prevalence of zoonotic microorganisms in different foods and animals. The data provide a basis for implementing and monitoring control measures to prevent and reduce the presence of these microorganisms in the food chain.
EU measures are also in place to control specific foodborne zoonotic agents, such as Salmonella. These include mandatory meat inspections and trade restrictions on eggs and live poultry from third countries. The European Commission also sets targets that Member States need to meet to reduce Salmonella in different animals, including chickens and turkeys.
Food safety criteria have been defined for certain important foodborne bacteria and their toxins, including Salmonella and Listeria, in specific foodstuffs. 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 by food business operators at each stage of food production, processing and distribution.