A family from the US state of South Dakota grilled bear meat and contracted a dangerous disease: trichinellosis. This is a worm disease that can spread throughout the body.

As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced, even family members who had not eaten the meat became ill. This is because other foods were also contaminated during preparation. The agency therefore pointed out that game meat must be heated to 74 degrees in the core to kill trichinae. In addition, raw meat should always be prepared separately from other foods.

Trichinosis also occurs in Germany – infections are rare

Although bear meat is not consumed in Germany, trichinosis can also be found in game meat here. “That’s true, but infections are quite rare – it’s important to cook game meat thoroughly,” says Daniela Krehl from the Bavarian Consumer Center in an interview with FOCUS online.

According to the Robert Koch Institute, trichinellosis is widespread worldwide, but is very rare in Germany. Between 2001 and 2011, only 63 cases were reported to the RKI. In 2006, 16 people became ill after eating a privately kept domestic pig. According to the RKI, commercially available pork is not affected.

Other parasites transmitted through food

However, according to the RKI, there are still other parasitic diseases that can be transmitted through food, such as:

  • Toxoplasmosis: The parasite Toxoplasma gondii is widespread throughout the world and can also be transmitted through the consumption of raw meat and meat products. In healthy people, an infection is usually asymptomatic or, in the worst case, causes flu-like symptoms. However, in people with pre-existing illnesses or weak immune systems, an infection can be life-threatening. Pregnant women in particular should avoid consuming salami or tartare: an initial infection can cause serious damage to the embryo.
  • Echinococcosis: This serious illness is caused by the fox tapeworm and can lead to tumor-like changes in the liver. The lungs and brain can also be affected. Symptoms that can only appear months or years after infection due to the slow growth of the larvae include stomach pain, fatigue and jaundice. The fox tapeworm is excreted in the animal’s feces. The tapeworm eggs can therefore come into contact with berries, herbs and mushrooms as well as vegetables and fallen fruit from the garden, as foxes also roam around there. Therefore, always wash food thoroughly and ideally heat it. The eggs can only be killed safely by heating them to over 60 degrees. Pets such as dogs and cats can also become infected and should be checked regularly for worm infestation. According to the RKI, for example, a total of almost 100 cases were reported in 2004. The institute assumes that far more cases have occurred but were not reported.
  • Cryptosporidiosis: This is a diarrheal disease associated with abdominal cramps that is caused by the parasite Cryptosporidium. It is transmitted via contaminated water or food washed with contaminated water, and it can also be found in meat. An infection can also be transmitted from person to person via the fecal-oral route. Infants and people with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk, as the parasite can lead to chronic diarrhea. The parasites are resistant to many disinfectants, and even treating drinking water with chlorine does not kill them. Only boiling the water is a sure way to help. According to the RKI, between 2001 and 2013, between 800 and 1,500 cases were reported per year.
  • Nematodes (roundworms): Parasites such as roundworms can also be transmitted to humans via fish, which can lead to health problems such as gastrointestinal complaints. This is why fish from the trade are examined on light tables during processing to ensure that infected fish are not sold. Anyone who fishes themselves should therefore be careful. Heating to at least 70 degrees kills nematodes, as does freezing for at least three days at minus 20 degrees.

Most illnesses are caused by poor kitchen hygiene

According to Krehl, the risk of contracting a parasite infection through food in Germany is relatively low. The risk of catching bacteria through poor kitchen hygiene is much higher, she warns. According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), more than 100,000 illnesses are caused by the presence of microorganisms in food every year in Germany.

In addition to parasites and viruses, bacteria in particular are responsible for this. “If consumers follow the rules of kitchen hygiene, they can protect themselves and others from food-borne illnesses caused by microorganisms in food,” the BfR website states. This also applies to food that is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant germs.

The BfR’s most important tips on kitchen hygiene:

  • Selection of food: Raw foods from animals are most commonly contaminated with pathogens. They can pose a danger to people with weak immune systems, pregnant women and small children. Therefore, avoid foods such as raw minced meat, raw sausage, dishes with raw eggs, raw milk, raw milk cheese, raw fish and seafood such as oysters, sushi and smoked salmon, or only eat them when they are thoroughly cooked.
  • Cold chain: Bring refrigerated and frozen foods home as quickly as possible and store them in the fridge and freezer. Check the expiration date.
  • Proper storage of food: Store food in closed containers to prevent pets and insects from coming into contact with it. Store cut fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator. Store meat, poultry and fish separately and also in closed containers in the designated compartment (0-degree compartment).
  • Order of food preparation: First prepare foods that are not heated, such as salad and raw vegetables, and only then prepare raw animal products.
  • Prevent cross-contamination: Raw foods such as meat should not come into contact with other foods. When handling raw and cooked foods, never use the same kitchen utensils, such as knives and cutting boards. Always wash hands and utensils thoroughly after contact with raw foods.
  • Hygiene: Keep pets away from food and do not pet them while preparing food. Wash hands thoroughly before preparing food and avoid touching your mouth, nose and hair. If possible, use cutlery rather than hands to touch food.
  • Heat properly: When preparing and reheating food, heat it sufficiently to at least 70 degrees on all surfaces. Store leftover cooked food in the refrigerator and consume within two to three days.

Further tips can be found under Consumer Tips – BfR leaflet

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