New UN guidance on parasite could boost US pork exports, NPPC says

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, July 13, 2015 - A United Nations standard-setting body for food safety has issued new guidance that the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) says could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in increased exports of American pork products.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission on Saturday released draft guidelines for dealing with trichinae, a parasite with a calculated prevalence of 1-in-300 million in the U.S. commercial swine herd. Despite the low occurrence rate, many countries still test fresh chilled U.S. pork for the parasite, and some other countries will only accept frozen or cooked pork as a way to try to avoid the parasite.

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In a release, Ron Prestage, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said the new guidance “will greatly increase confidence in the safety of pork and protect consumer health while facilitating trade . . . In turn, that will help us get more high-value U.S. pork to foreign destinations.”

Many concerns about trichinae are founded on information from 70 or more years ago. According to a fact sheet from USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the parasite was much more prevalent in the 1930s and 1940s. At the turn of the 20th century, estimates conservatively put the rate of infection in U.S. pigs at 2.5 percent, and a 1943 National Institute of Health report found that one out of every six people - 16.2 percent - were infected.

But changes in the industry have led to positive cases becoming almost non-existent. Moving away from feeding pigs raw garbage in the 1950s and improving biosecurity and hygiene standards in pork production have contributed to prevalence in pigs dropping from about 600 cases in one recorded year in the 1930s to zero cases in 1996. Some cases are still reported in humans but they can be attributed to eating bear or other game meats.

“Despite the fact that trichinae is rare in today's industry, pork still suffers from its legacy,” the fact sheet said. “Today, the trichinae issue is a question of perception versus reality. Dramatic declines in prevalence in pigs and the extremely low numbers of cases in humans are largely unrecognized by domestic consumers who still raise questions about ‘worms in pork'.”

According to the NPPC, the guidance approved by the Codex commission allows countries to establish a negligible risk “compartment,” which must include controlled management conditions for swine herds, ongoing verification of the status of the compartment and a response plan for deviations from negligible risk status. Two years of data collection verifying negligible risk levels through slaughter surveillance, which consists of random sampling, is required to establish a compartment. Once established, a compartment can be monitored through on-farm audits, surveillance at slaughter or a combination of both.

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According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, just 90 cases of the disease were reported to CDC between 2008 and 2012. In rare cases where humans ingest the parasite, larvae penetrate the wall of the small intestine, where they mature into adult worms and mate. About a week after infection, adult female worms produce larvae that go through the intestinal wall, enter the bloodstream, and eventually burrow into muscle or other tissue. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can last two to eight weeks after initial infection, and the severity of the condition usually has to do with the amount of larvae consumed.

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