At least 45,000 illnesses and 32 deaths resulted from 5,332 outbreaks of contaminated food during 2008 in the European Union, a new report says.

Those are among the findings of the recently published 2008 Annual Report on Zoonoses and Foodborne Outbreaks by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

doctor-patient-featured.jpgIt provides a comprehensive overview of zoonotic infections shared in nature by humans and animals and disease outbreaks caused by consuming contaminated food.  Human infections were down some from 2007.

Campylobacteriosis remained the most frequently reported zoonotic infection in humans across the European Union, with 190,566 cases notified in 2008 (down from 200,507 in 2007).

In foodstuffs, Campylobacter, which can cause diarrhea and fever, was mostly found in raw poultry meat.  In live animals, Campylobacter was found in poultry, pigs and cattle.

Salmonella, the second most reported zoonotic infection in humans, decreased significantly for the fifth consecutive year, with 131,468 cases in 2008 compared to 151,998 in 2007, a 13.5 percent decrease.

Salmonella remained, however, the most frequent cause of foodborne outbreaks.  

It was found most frequently in raw chicken, turkey, and pig meat.  In animal populations, an important decline of Salmonella Enteritidis–the type most frequently affecting humans–was observed in laying hen flocks.

2008 was the first year in which EU Member States implemented a new plan put in place by the EU Commission to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella in laying hens.  Twenty Member States have already met their reduction target for that year.

The report says this could be the reason for a decrease of Salmonella Enteritidis infections in humans, since eggs are known to be the most important source for these infections. 

“It is worth noting that the number of Salmonella cases is declining both in animals and humans. The findings in the report support the Commission and Member States in reducing the prevalence of zoonoses in the EU,” said Hubert Deluyker, EFSA’s Director of Scientific Cooperation and Assistance. 

Andrea Ammon, ECDC’s Head of Surveillance Unit, added: “It is encouraging to note the overall decline for most of the zoonotic diseases covered by the report. However, there is no room for complacency and the report serves to highlight the importance of the joint efforts between ECDC and EFSA in providing valuable data for the reduction of zoonotic diseases.”

With 1,381 confirmed cases in 2008, Listeria infections showed a decrease of 11 percent compared to 2007.

Although less frequent in humans compared to Campylobacter and Salmonella, Listeria is known to have a high mortality rate, the most affected being vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the fetuses of pregnant women.

In foodstuffs, the study found Listeria above the legal safety limit in some ready-to-eat foods, mostly in smoked fish and heat-treated meat products and cheeses. 

Reported cases of Q fever in humans increased from 585 in 2007 to 1,599 in 2008.

This disease, caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii, results mainly from the inhalation of contaminated dust around infected cattle, sheep and goats.

Q fever causes flu-like and gastrointestinal symptoms such as fever and diarrhea. In animals, the highest infection rates were reported in goats. 

Verotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) accounted for a total of 3,159 human infections in the EU, representing nearly a 9 percent increase from the previous year.

Among animals and foodstuffs, VTEC was most often reported in cattle and bovine meat.

The number of cases of Yersinia in humans in 2008 was 8,346, a 7 percent decrease from 2007, with the bacterium found mostly in pigs and pig meat. 

The report also gives an overview of foodborne outbreaks in 2008: 5,332 were recorded, affecting over 45,000 people and causing 32 deaths.

Salmonella caused the most outbreaks (35 percent), followed by viruses and bacterial toxins.

The most frequent food sources of these outbreaks were eggs and egg products (23 percent), pork and derived products (10 percent) and buffet meals (9 percent). 

The report, which covers 15 zoonotic infections, also provides data on other zoonoses, such as brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, and rabies, and the two parasitic zoonoses trichinellosis and echinococcosis.

Meanwhile EFSA’s Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) Panel has adopted an opinion on the extent to which broiler (chicken) meat contributes to human cases of campylobacteriosis.

Experts conclude that the handling, preparation and consumption of broiler meat may directly account for 20 to 30 percent of human cases of campylobacteriosis in the European Union.

In Europe, campylobacteriosis is the most common infectious disease transmissible from animals to humans through food and the opinion confirms previous findings that poultry meat appears to be a major, if not the largest, source of human infection.