Tesco is indeed ‘Supermarket X’ – the unnamed retailer in a controversial Public Health England study into hepatitis E – but PHE has stressed there is no suggestion Tesco products were the direct cause of hepatitis infections in the UK.
It comes after a PHE study into the shopping habits of 60 people infected with hepatitis E found those who had bought ham and sausages from ‘supermarket x’ (now known to be Tesco) were more likely to have a particularly strain of hepatitis. As that strain has not been found in the UK pig herd, the PHE study suggested the products would have been made with imported pork. The study was picked up by the Sunday Times last weekend, prompting a slew of headlines across national media and pressure on PHE to name the retailer. It had already been rumoured that Tesco was supermarket in question.
“Tesco was not named in our study because we attach no fault to the company,” said Dr Jenny Harries of PHE in a statement Wednesday afternoon. ”This study was a statistical analysis that found an association between clinical hepatitis E and sausage and ham products rather than direct causation. Most of the cases involved the G3-2 hepatitis E strain, which has not been found in UK pigs, and the appearance of this strain is likely to reflect complex animal health practices within Europe, rather than any processes used by the retailer. PHE understands all sausages sold under the Tesco brand are exclusively sourced within the UK.
Tesco welcomed PHE’s statement. A spokesman said: “Tesco welcomes PHE’s statement that recognises Tesco products were not the cause of the hepatitis E infections in its research. The sausages on sale at Tesco at the time of the research were sourced from the UK and continue to be today. We do of course recognise the risk of hepatitis E in pork and work very closely with farmers, suppliers, PHE, FSA and the industry to reduce its risk. We also provide customers with easy to follow advice on the packaging of all our pork products setting out how to handle it safely and cook it thoroughly.”
Harries also stressed the risk to public health from hepatitis E infection was low. “It is usually a mild, self-limiting illness which most people will clear without any symptoms. The Food Standards Agency is working with government, industry bodies and scientists across Europe to better understand and address the risk of foodborne hepatitis E infection.”