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Rev Sci Tech. 1997 Aug;16(2):620-40.

The role of seafood in foodborne diseases in the United States of America.

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Department of Marine Sciences, University of South Florida, Saint Petersburg 33701, USA.


In the United States of America, seafood ranked third on the list of products which caused foodborne disease between 1983 and 1992. Outbreaks connected with fish vectors were caused by scombroid, ciguatoxin, bacteria and unknown agents; in shellfish, unknown agents, paralytic shellfish poisoning, Vibrio spp. and other bacteria, followed by hepatitis A virus, were responsible for the outbreaks. At least ten genera of bacterial pathogens have been implicated in seafood-borne diseases. Over the past twenty-five years, bacterial pathogens associated with faecal contamination have represented only 4% of the shellfish-associated outbreaks, while naturally-occurring bacteria accounted for 20% of shellfish-related illnesses and 99% of the deaths. Most of these indigenous bacteria fall into the family Vibrionaceae which includes the genera Vibrio, Aeromonas and Plesiomonas. In general, Vibrio spp. are not associated with faecal contamination and therefore faecal indicators do not correlate with the presence of Vibrio. Viruses are the most significant cause of shellfish-associated disease: in New York State, for example, 33% and 62% of 196 outbreaks between 1981 and 1992 were caused by Norwalk virus and gastrointestinal viruses (small round structured viruses), respectively. In addition, several illnesses are a result of toxic algal blooms, the growth of naturally occurring bacteria and diatoms causing neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, paralytic shellfish poisoning, diarrhoetic shellfish poisoning, amnesic shellfish poisoning and ciguatera. Current estimates place the annual number of ciguatera cases at 20,000 world-wide. Scombroid poisoning is the most significant cause of illness associated with seafood. Scombrotoxin is of bacterial origin and halophilic Vibrio spp. causing high histamine levels are implicated as the source. Scombroid poisoning is geographically diverse and many species have been implicated, namely: tuna, mahi-mahi, bluefish, sardines, mackerel, amberjack and abalone. Temperature abuse has been cited as a major cause of scombroid poisoning. For routine work, the use of faecal indicators to predict the relative level of faecal contamination should not be disposed of. However, the main source of seafood illness is due to species which are not predicted by these organisms. In order to protect public health, routine surveillance using new pathogen-specific techniques such as polymerase chain reaction should be used. This, in combination with risk assessment methods and hazard analysis and critical control points, will begin to address the need for improvement in the safety of seafood.

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