When I read that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had been looking at the risk of Ebola transmission through bushmeat illegally imported into Europe from Africa I was a bit surprised. It seemed such a parochial thing to be doing when the three countries in the grip of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa need all the help they can get to contain the spread of infection and protect their populations.
But of course EFSA’s job is to safeguard Europe’s food supply and it has a duty to assess any foodborne risk to EU citizens. Although the import of bushmeat (wild animal species killed for food) into the EU is illegal, it does happen. There have been a number of instances where people stopped at points of entry have been found to be in possession of suitcases crammed with butchered wildlife. Clearly there is a market – hopefully small – for bushmeat in Europe, or no one would be taking the risk. That means it is likely that some gets in undetected. Happily the EFSA experts concluded that the Ebola risk is small, although they couldn’t rule out the possibility of infection through handling contaminated bushmeat, especially if it is chilled or frozen. The risk assessment was still worth doing, if only because any information on the spread of the Ebola virus, whether through bushmeat or otherwise, could be useful to those battling to contain it.
It is quite likely that contact with infected wild animals is how Ebola outbreaks in humans begin and the first recorded one occurred in Africa in 1976. In those days it was very much a localised problem and, though very serious, little threat to the wider world. The current outbreak is different, not least because people move around much more than they did forty years ago, which has allowed infection to spread into major urban areas. International travel is also much more common than it used to be, so that some countries are now routinely screening arrivals from Ebola affected countries for signs of illness.
It is not only people that travel long distances now – food does too, along with any health hazards it contains. Global supply networks mean that foods are shipped to markets in developed countries from all over the world. Some consequences of that were highlighted this week by a report on three hepatitis A virus (HAV) outbreaks that all occurred in Europe at about the same time last year. More than 400 people in 16 European countries became ill within a three-month period. The report concludes that there was no direct connection between the three outbreaks, but all were probably caused either by people travelling to areas where HAV is endemic, or by frozen fruit products imported from such areas. Despite over a year of investigation, there is still a lot we do not know about these outbreaks and their origins. That is precisely why we need bodies like EFSA to keep assessing risks in the food supply chain, no matter how apparently unlikely. It’s hard to control risks that you don’t fully understand.