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Viruses in foods

In recent years viruses have been increasingly recognized as important causes of outbreaks of foodborne disease. While noroviruses and hepatitis A are currently recognized as the most important foodborne viruses, a range of other enteric viruses have also been linked to foodborne illness. Implicated foods tend to be those that are minimally processed such as bivalve molluscs and fresh produce rather than industrially processed foods and many of the documented outbreaks of viral foodborne illness have been linked to contamination of the food by an infected food handler.

While in many countries viruses are now considered to be an extremely common cause of foodborne illness, they are rarely diagnosed as the analytical and diagnostic tools for such viruses are not widely available. However, much progress has been made recently in terms of the methodology available for detection and identification of viruses in both food and clinical samples. Such developments should contribute to assessing the actual burden of foodborne disease linked to viruses as well as improving strategies for the prevention and control of viruses in foods and the associated risk.

At the international level the Codex Alimentarius is considering the types of risk management tools which it can develop to assist countries in their efforts to protect consumer health from foodborne viral illness. To facilitate this work FAO and WHO are initiating work on this issue beginning with a review of the current state of knowledge on viruses in food and their impact with the objective of providing advice and guidance on the virus:commodity combinations of particular concern, the issues that need to be addressed by risk managers and the options available to them as well as the identification of additional scientific information needed to provide risk based advice on managing the risks associated with viruses in foods.

FAO and WHO convened an Expert Meeting in May 2007 on viruses in food.