FSA set to review advice to pregnant women on dangers of cat parasites

Agency also attacked for failing to warn of risk of contamination from eating undercooked lamb

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is going to review its advice to pregnant women and other groups of people who could be at risk of health problems as a result of being infected with toxoplasma, a microscopic parasite carried by cats and transmitted in contaminated food.

The Independent revealed yesterday that toxoplasma is infecting up to 1,000 new people a day in Britain – about 350,000 people a year – and that it has been tentatively linked with mental impairment as well as the known serious health problems of congenital birth defects, blindness and dementia.

The FSA will detail later this year how it intends to amend its existing advice to vulnerable groups. Its advice currently states that pregnant women and patients with compromised immune systems should avoid cat litter and eating rare meat, which can harbour toxoplasma cysts. Although most people infected with toxoplasma show no obvious symptoms, there is growing evidence that the parasite may cause behavioural changes, ranging from increased risk taking and delayed reaction times to schizophrenia.

The FSA's chief scientist, Andrew Wadge, said that a report by the FSA's Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food found that further research is needed to establish how toxoplasma is spreading to people from cats.

"This thorough and detailed report points out key gaps in our knowledge about this parasite and suggests areas where more research is needed which will help us in estimating how much infection is due to food and which foods might be the highest risk," Dr Wadge said.

"The report also suggests we look again at our advice to vulnerable groups and ensure that it reflects current scientific knowledge. We're going to look carefully at the report's recommendations and will publish a response in due course."

Experts called yesterday for more to be done to warn the general public about the risks posed by toxoplasma and some have warned people against eating undercooked meat, especially lamb, which is thought to be at high risk of being contaminated.

Barbara Lund, a microbiologist at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, said that she would not advise people to eat rare lamb and criticised the FSA for saying that it is perfectly safe for most people to eat pink meat provided it is cooked on the outside. "Regarding the comment that it is safe to serve whole cuts of beef and lamb rare as long as they have been properly cooked on the outside, it is not clear to me that we can be confident of this advice for sheep meat," Dr Lund said.

Fuller Torrey, an expert on schizophrenia and toxoplasma at America's Stanley Medical Research Institute in Maryland, said that the seriousness of the potential risks posed by the parasite to the general public means that all meat should be cooked thoroughly to kill parasitic cysts lying dormant within muscle tissue.

"Eating any meat that is rare or undercooked is not safe. I would not advise anyone to eat undercooked meat given what we know and don't know about this organism," Dr Torrey said.

But Sarah O'Brien, who chairs the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food, said yesterday that although more work needs to be done to understand how toxoplasma is entering the food chain, there is no need at present for people to avoid eating rare meat unless they are pregnant women or immune-compromised patients.

"There is no evidence to suggest that people generally should change their eating habits, and I think the FSA is right to say that most of the population can continue to enjoy lamb and beef cooked rare," Dr O'Brien said.

Beth Skillings, clinical veterinary officer for the charity Cats Protection, said that while cats are the definitive host for toxoplasma, contact with cats is not a risk for infection: "Even vets are no more likely to be infected with the parasite than non-vets. Most people contract toxoplasmosis through other routes such as eating undercooked meat, inadvertently ingesting contaminated soil through gardening or eating unwashed vegetables."

Toxoplasma in numbers

1 in 100 Cats infected with toxoplasma.

3 Babies in every 100,000 are born with toxoplasmosis in the UK.

People infected with the toxoplasma parasite are 2.7 babies in every 100,000 are born with toxoplasmosis in the UK.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

    £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

    Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

    £23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...