Monitoring of pig carcasses and pig meat in slaughterhouses, butchers' premises and retail outlets will be undertaken in Ireland over the next two years in an attempt to determine how a human disease causing bacteria, Yersinia enterocolitica, enters the food chain, scientists announced today Tuesday 4 September 2007 at the Society for General Microbiology's 161st Meeting at the University of Edinburgh, UK, which runs from 3-6 September 2007.

The survey will look at 1,800 pig tissue samples from 3 slaughterhouses and 200 pork meat samples from 50 retailers.

So far, of 516 samples studied, 12 (2%) have already been found with non-disease causing Yersinia enterocolitica, and 15 samples (3%) have been found to contain the bacteria with disease causing genes.

Some of the contaminated samples were also shown to contain antibiotic resistant strains of the bacteria, representing an emerging pathogen which is a potential public health risk.

"Yersinia enterocolitica is widespread in nature and found in animals and water supplies. These bacteria can cause serious gastroenteritis in humans, and sometimes the symptoms can mimic appendicitis, leading to unnecessary surgery. The bacteria colonise the tonsils and the neck muscles of pigs and as a result may enter the food chain", says Dr Brenda Murphy of the Veterinary Food Safety Laboratory, Cork County Council and Centre for Food Safety, University College Dublin.

Public health officials do not yet know quite how significant (or not) the problem is. Once the key environmental reservoirs of the pathogen are known, the main entry points into the food chain will be identified. Consumers and the food industry will benefit from improved biosecurity measures based on our scientific findings. This will lead in turn to better monitoring and reduction in the risk of dissemination of the pathogen.

"Once we have identified the full extent of the problem in pigs our future work may include screening other food animals such as cattle to work out where else this organism might be," says Dr Murphy. "We also hope that our antimicrobial resistance data will facilitate clinicians to improve antibiotic treatments in cases of human and animal infections when required".

Dr Murphy is presenting the poster 'Prevalence and characterisation of Yersinia enterocolitica along the Irish food chain' at 1030 on Tuesday 04 September 2007 in the Plenary session of the 161st Meeting of the Society for General Microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, 03 - 06 September 2007.

Full programme details of this meeting can be found on the Society's website here . Hard copies are available on request from the SGM.

The Society for General Microbiology is the largest microbiology society in Europe, and has over 5,500 members worldwide. The Society provides a common meeting ground for scientists working in research and in fields with applications in microbiology including medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmaceuticals, industry, agriculture, food, the environment and education.

The SGM represents the science and profession of microbiology to government, the media and the general public; supporting microbiology education at all levels; and encouraging careers in microbiology.

Two of the scientists working on the Yersinia enterocolitica project , Dr. Brenda Murphy, Veterinary Food Safety Laboratory, Cork County Council, Ireland and Mr. Niall Drummond, a PhD student studying with Professor Séamus Fanning, Centre for Food Safety, University College Dublin, Ireland.

Typical Y. enterocolitica colony is tiny with a halo, < 1mm in diameter.

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