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EU report warns of climate impact on foodborne diseases


Climate impacts on diseases including foodborne infections pose a growing threat, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). 

The agency said there is a need to move from planning to action and to improve awareness among public health and healthcare practitioners, in a report on climate change in Europe.

One chapter looked at climate-sensitive infectious disease threats in Europe, including vibriosis. It also identified groups that are particularly vulnerable and provided an overview of preventive actions.

The prevalence of outbreaks of many vector-, food- or waterborne diseases are affected by climatic conditions or exacerbated by extreme weather events such as heavy rain and flooding.

Climate-sensitive infectious diseases are projected to further spread northward and cause a higher disease burden in Europe as changing conditions become better for their emergence and transmission, according to the report.

Impact on foodborne infections
Warming sea waters are also increasingly suitable for Vibrio bacteria found in fish and shellfish, such as along Baltic Sea coastlines. Exposure to Vibrio can cause serious illness and it grows extremely well in warm water with moderate salinity.

Vibriosis is not a reportable disease in the EU. Effective monitoring of species that carry or transmit these diseases and surveillance would help the development of early warnings and better-targeted controls, found the report.

Other waters and foodborne diseases of relevance to Europe include E. coli, salmonellosis, cryptosporidiosis, and campylobacteriosis. While higher temperatures are expected to impact all of them, heavy rain is another factor for Campylobacter while flooding is more important for E. coli.

A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) publication in 2020 identified and attempted to quantify some current and anticipated food safety issues associated with climate change. Hazards included foodborne pathogens and parasites, harmful algal blooms, pesticides, mycotoxins, and heavy metals.

High air temperatures can adversely affect food quality during transport, storage, and handling. Disruption of electrical, refrigeration and cooking systems caused by flooding or power blackouts during heatwaves, intense storms, or wildfires may facilitate the transmission of foodborne illnesses, particularly during warm summer months, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Severe floods can lead to higher immediate, medium- and the long-term likelihood of food- and water-borne infections, as they may cause animal feces in soil or sewage to flow over the land, into growing fields, buildings, or water systems, increasing the likelihood of human contact with viruses, bacteria, and parasites, causing diseases, added the agency.

Early warning
The EEA report said effective surveillance of diseases supports the development of early warnings and prevents outbreaks. Further awareness raising is needed among the public and health professionals about the threats of climate‑sensitive infectious diseases and prevention methods.

John Ryan, deputy Director-General of DG Sante at the European Commission, said diseases including foodborne infections are a challenge exacerbated by increases in climate events.

“From the Commission’s point of view, having a One Health approach is important, so we don’t find ourselves with zoonotic diseases transferring to humans for which we might not be in a position to react in time. It is important we have an alert, a preparedness and response system which takes account of this One Health approach,” he said, during a webinar to launch the report.

“As a result of COVID we have launched the EU health union, this involves strengthening the ECDC. We have reinforced the cross-border health threats regulation. It has a strong component of prevention and preparedness planning. It also has an aspect related to surveillance and coordinated response between member states. This will include future environmental and bio-chemical threats. As part of the EU Green Deal, through the farm-to-fork strategy, we have tried to propose ideas for a sustainable food system that helps to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

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