Potential increase of histamine outbreaks in Europe: What can seafood producers do to prevent an outbreak?

Histamine outbreaks could be an increasing problem in the old continent for some years to come.

Also known as scombroid food poisoning, histamine food poisoning (HFP) is a foodborne illness that results from the consumption of fish containing high levels of histamine due to inadequate storage or poor processing.

In 2017 alone, this allergy-like disease resulted in 117 outbreaks, leaving 572 people sick across Europe.

Previous years have also seen outbreaks of HFP. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), from 2010 to 2017, 599 cases of HFP were reported in the European Union.

These tendencies obviously raised alarms in the European public health community. Last May, Eurosurveillance, a European journal that covers public health issues, did some multidisciplinary investigations and concluded that HFP cases are very likely to raise if trading trends keep going up.

“European fresh tuna imports increased by 5% per year on average between 2011 and 2015. If this trend continues, the risk of HFP could increase in the coming years,” the journal’s article states.

With fears becoming realities and numbers becoming patterns, only one question matters: What can be done to prevent a histamine outbreak?

“Refrigeration and monitoring are the most important elements in any strategy,” Neogen’s Kevin Mulholland said. “Primary processors or really anyone involved need to make sure that refrigeration after harvesting and onboard refrigeration and icing were adequate and immediate during vessel procedures. Sensory examinations are also a must.”

Temperature is not the only factor that counts in this equation; when it comes to the integrity of the fish, every second counts.

“Histamine grows faster not only due to the abuse of temperature but also because of the abuse of time. Everyone who has a role in this cycle needs to make sure there aren’t delays in their procedures,” Mulholland said. “For fishermen, for example, there needs to be a clear time of death. If this one is unknown, the estimated time of the first fish death functions as such.”

In some cases, even some packaging techniques that can be effective to control bacteria growth seem to be useless.

“Some histamine-forming bacteria can grow in reduced oxygen environments, so relying on vacuum packaging or any sort of controlled atmosphere packaging is not the best practice,” Mulholland stated. “There are, however, some circumstances in which packaging can keep histamine levels down. Canned tuna, for example, will not show signs of increased histamine levels after canning.”

Test kits to detect histamine levels in fish are valuable solutions. However, this method is only as reliable as the plan behind it.

“Histamine rapid testing methods are good ways to detect histamine presence during screening processes. However, since histamine is usually not uniformly distributed, detecting its presence through testing procedures is just as good as the logic behind it. The usual rule states that with 50 ppm in one section of a fish or lot, other sections probably exceed 500 ppm,” Mulholland clarified.

Regulatory bodies are also sources of reliable information about these procedures. However, it is important to know that preventing histamine outbreaks requires more than a step-guide to avoid spoilage of fish. This is a multi-sectoral effort in which everyone has a role. From sea to table, it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure the safety of our food.

Neogen offers testing solutions for detecting histamine in multiple fish. For more information, check out Neogen’s website or Neogen Europe’s website.

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