Entamoeba histolytica is a protozoan parasite that can cause a disease called, Amoebiasis, also known as Amoebic Dysentery.
Amoebiasis is one of the leading causes of diarrhoea in developing countries. The symptoms can range from none to severe, and the disease can be fatal in some people.
There are many ways a person can get infected with the E. histolytica parasite, but one of them is through eating contaminated food.
This article specifically discusses how the E. histolytica parasite can affect Food Safety and, in turn, the consumer.
The Global Burden of E. histolytica Infections
An estimated 35-50 million people get infected, and 40 000 to 100 000 dies globally each year due to E. histolytica infections.
An estimated 90% of infected persons are asymptomatic (shows no symptoms), and only 10% of people are symptomatic (shows symptoms). This means most infected people don’t even know they are infected.
The parasite occurs worldwide, but it’s more common in people living or travelling to developing countries with a tropical or subtropic climate, in combination with crowded living conditions, poor sanitation and poor hygiene.
Foods Most Likely to Pose a Risk
Any food contaminated with E. histolytica cysts can pose a risk but drinking water and fresh produce like vegetables and fruits eaten raw poses the most significant risk to people.
The reason? High temperatures like cooking kill the parasite quickly, but this crucial step doesn’t occur when produce is eaten raw.
How E. histolytica Affect Food Safety
You can find cysts and trophozoites of the parasite in the intestines of infected humans and passed in faeces.
The cysts can survive for days or even weeks in the environment (water, soil, food, hands and other surfaces), especially under moist conditions.
The trophozoites don’t last very long once outside the human body.
Transmission of the cysts to humans occurs via the faecal-oral route, either directly from person-to-person, or indirectly by drinking water or eating food contaminated with faeces.
How does faeces end up in your food?
Human Waste as Fertiliser or Compost
Some countries allow the use of human waste as fertiliser or compost for crops.
In areas prone to E. histolytica infection, the use of human waste is risky.
The cysts are transferred from the soil to the crops and end up on your plate if no proper steps are taken to remove the cysts (rinsing fresh produce with clean water or cooking food properly).
Untreated contaminated water used for rinsing food products can also transfer the cysts to the food products.
Infected Food Handlers
Any food handler infected with E. histolytica handling food and not washing their hands after visiting the toilet can transfer the cysts to the food on your plate.
Lifecycle of E. histolytica
Conditions E. histolytica Cysts Prefer
The cysts can survive in the environment but cannot multiply outside the human body and only start multiplying once ingested.
When outside the human body and in the environment, the cysts prefer moist conditions, like high humidity temperatures and therefore live longer under these conditions.
The cysts are temperature sensitive and easily killed by heat and freezing temperatures.
How Food Businesses Can Prevent E. histolytica Related Food Safety Incidents
It’s the responsibility of every food handling enterprise to ensure the food they sell are 100% fit for human consumption and will not cause any harm to the consumer.
Here are a few Food Safety tips for you to get started with.
Only use reputable suppliers who take Food Safety seriously when buying food products, especially fresh produce.
It’s important to know exactly where your food products are coming from and the systems your suppliers and their suppliers have in place to ensure Food Safety. Food Safety is important throughout the food chain. From farm-to-fork.
Avoid buying any food where human waste is used as fertiliser or compost unless you’re 100% sure the human waste will not pose a health risk.
Reporting of Illnesses
All food handlers must immediately report any illnesses, symptoms or lesions that can affect Food Safety to their manager or supervisor.
The FDA’s “Employee Health and Personal Hygiene Handbook” is an excellent resource to use as a guideline.
Before you take drastic action and start implementing procedures for the reporting of illnesses, ensure you understand your country’s legal requirements regarding the reporting of illnesses in a food handling environment or any other workplace.
You might step on someone’s toes and get in trouble if you force an employee to declare an illness if employees or people, in general, are protected by a law where they don’t have to declare certain illnesses or diseases.
Restrict the reporting of illnesses only to the types of diseases, symptoms and injuries that can affect Food Safety unless otherwise required by law.
All food handlers should always follow good hygiene practices. Washing hands regularly, especially after visiting the toilet, is the number one priority.
Use Potable Water
Only use safe, uncontaminated drinking water in your food business for handwashing and during food preparation.
Rinse Fruits and Vegetables
Rinse fresh fruit and vegetables well before use, especially when it is intended to be eaten raw, for example, salads, fruit bowls, etc.
Rinse even if you are going to peel the fruit or vegetables. Contaminants on the skin can be transferred to the rest of the fruit or vegetables during peeling and cutting.
Temperature plays a significant role in killing E. histolytica cysts. Freezing and cooking food properly can prevent/reduce the risk of infecting your customers.
How Travellers Can Protect Themselves from E. histolytica Infections
Follow these rules if you live in or travel to areas prone to E. histolytica infections:
- Wash your hands regularly with clean, uncontaminated water after contact with other people or handling food products.
- If handwashing is not an option at the specific moment, don’t put your fingers near your mouth.
- Keep in mind the cysts can easily hide under fingernails.
- Avoid buying and eating raw fresh produce like vegetables and fruit, which is not adequately rinsed in safe, uncontaminated water. Avoid completely if you’re travelling to high-risk areas.
- Don’t eat any prepared meals that are not properly cooked and piping hot.
- Make sure the water you drink is safe.
For more detailed information about the E. histolytica parasite please visit the following resources.
The E. histolytica parasite is common in certain areas (mainly tropical and sub-tropical areas) of the world. It poses a risk to Food Safety when good food hygiene practices are not followed by food handling enterprises, food handlers and consumers.
Anyone travelling to high-risk areas should take precautions to prevent E. histolytica infections. Where possible, avoid eating raw fruit and vegetables and wash your hands regularly with a clean, uncontaminated water source.
Amoebiasis, a disease caused by the E. histolytica parasite, is treatable but can become life-threatening to some people when untreated.
Keep in mind about 90% of people are asymptomatic and would not even know they have an E. histolytica infection.
The best solution to prevent or reduce the risk of contamination is to follow good food and personal hygiene practices.
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