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Experts meet for deep dive on ciguatera fish poisoning


Experts met in FAO on 19 – 23 November 2018 to discuss ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP) and develop scientific advice for the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Food. CFP is one of the most common foodborne illnesses related to seafood consumption. While CFP has been known about for centuries, its true incidence remains unclear. In 2000 it was estimated that 10 000 – 50 000 people per year suffer from this illness.

Markus Lipp, Senior Food Safety Officer, and FAO Secretary to the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Meeting on ciguatera explained that the increase of incidences in new parts of the world is concerning because it suddenly affects areas that have traditionally no experience on how to manage that and hence not even any rudimentary risk management options.

The Chairperson of the expert meeting Martin van den Berg, from the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences (IRAS), Utrecht University explained the primary goal of the meeting was “to at least give good recommendations for near future risk assessments, keeping in mind the gaps in knowledge. This would be one step further”, he said acknowledging the value in FAO and WHO working on ciguatera together.

Marie-Yasmine Dechraoui Bottein from the International Atomic Energy Agency said, “We have been working this week to understand which species are involved as the source of the toxin and how the toxin is then transferred along the food web, how to monitor it and how many cases are actually occurring as there is an under-reporting of the problem”, she said.

People now travel further, they eat more sea food and so can be exposed to tropical sea fish. Today the whole world is impacted by ciguatera fish poisoning.

Two experts based at the Institut Louis Malardé in French Polynesia, Mireille Chinain and Clémence Gatti described how for years ciguatera had been an issue for developing countries attracting very limiting resources. “Now ciguatera is a global issue, it is very visible and an inter-agency initiative”, Chinain said.

Traditional risk management practices

Communities have developed some traditional ways of lowering the risk of consuming fish with ciguatera, sometimes using cats and small dogs to test the fish before consumption. Elderly people are also willing to take the risk of eating the fish for the community.

Listen to Alison Robertson, a biochemist from Dauphin Island Sea Lab describing her work on ciguatera in the Caribbean and explaining some of the reasons why it is spreading.

 “The committee has successfully concluded its deliberations on this very challenging topic. It is now finalizing the report with publication planned for later in 2019 “, said Lipp at the end of the expert meeting.

What causes ciguatera fish poisoning?

CFP is caused by the consumption of herbivorous fish that have become toxic from feeding on toxic benthic dinoflagellates (Gambierdicus toxicus) or from carnivorous fish that have consumed toxic herbivorous fish that have fed on dinoflagellates. According to a report published by FAO in 2004, more than 400 species of fish are known to be vectors of ciguatera, and Gambierdicus toxicus is found primarily in the tropics in association with macro algae usually attached to dead corals. The same report concluded that the available data on ciguatoxins (CTXs) were not suitable for risk assessment. In a further FAO publication from 2014, Ciguatera dinoflagellates were predicted to become one of the increasing food safety threats due to climate change. In 2015, FAO organized an interagency meeting to discuss ciguatera fish poisoning as an increasing food safety threat. During the meeting a plan of action was defined and the need of international level guidance was identified.

At the 32nd Session of the Codex Committee on Fisheries and Fishery Products (2016), CFP was raised by the Pacific Nations as an issue that increasingly affects the tropical and subtropical regions of the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean Sea, between the latitudes 35°N and 35°S. Indeed, it was noted that due to climate change the frequency of storms and hurricanes increases as well as the sea surface temperature (SST), which impacts on the distribution and proliferation of CTXs and makes the occurrence of CFP less predictable.

Globalization of trade and climate change might lead to the presence of ciguatoxins over a wider geographical area, therefore further guidance might be needed for those countries that did not consider ciguatoxins in their risk management programs in the past.


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