Hepatitis E (HEV) infections are emerging in Europe, especially HEV genotype 3. In 2015, HEV has been identified as one of the three most important viruses associated with foodborne infections. Over the last decade, more than 21.000 acute clinical cases have been reported, and the incidence of human infections has proven much higher than assumed. HEV infections in Europe are mainly linked to the consumption of raw or undercooked pork meat and wild boar food products.
However, the methods to detect and quantify HEV in food products need to be dramatically improved. On the one hand, detection methods for HEV in food are not well standardised and, on the other hand, the lack of in vitro and in vivo HEV models precludes exhaustive infectivity studies. Indeed, there is no established method for the detection of HEV genomic copies and the relationship with infectivity/risk for public health. This lack of methods and information hamper the competent authorities in controlling the risk of HEV in the food chain. Therefore, there is a clear need for infectivity assays and alternative molecular approaches to evaluate HEV infectivity. Both of them will contribute to the development of quantitative risk assessment and efficient control measures.
In the framework of this project, food products will be prioritised based on their risk for HEV contamination. This will be carried out in collaboration with the Belgian meat industry. The focus will be laid on food products containing pig/wild boar liver, meat or blood, as these have been identified as the main source of HEV contamination in Western countries.
In a second phase, alternative molecular methods will be developed to detect infectious particles of HEV in high-risk food products. For this purpose, molecular methods will be developed that assess the integrity of the RNA genome and capsid of HEV detected in food. Their efficiency to estimate infectivity will be evaluated by comparing them with an appropriate and optimised in vitro cell culture model.
In the final part of the project, the impact of meat processing practices on HEV infectivity will be tested. The purpose is to define food preparatory conditions that will eliminate/mitigate the risk of HEV infectivity.