The supermarket that unintentionally may have infected thousands of people with a pig virus which causes liver and neurological problems has been identified as Tesco.
Researchers at Public Health England (PHE) assessed the shopping habits of 60 people infected with hepatitis E, or HEV, and found that the consumption of ham and sausages from one store, identified originally only as “Supermarket X”, was a recurring feature.
PHE has been under pressure to reveal the identity of ‘Supermarket X’ for days, initially saying only that the “association with the supermarket does not infer any blame”.
On Wednesday PHE revealed to HuffPost UK that Tesco was ‘Supermarket X’.
Dr Jenny Harries, from PHE, said: “The risk to public health in England from hepatitis E infection is low, it is usually a mild, self-limiting illness which most people will clear without any symptoms.
“Tesco was not named in our study because we attach no fault to the company.
“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.
“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.”
Symptoms of hepatitis E include jaundice, darkening of the urine and pale stools and can also include nausea, loss of appetite, tiredness, abdominal pain and fever.
The government says of HEV on its website: “Pregnant women and older people, those with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic liver disease can experience more severe infections.
“These patients can require closer observation in case the infection affects their liver function.”
Most infected people present few symptoms but others develop serious illness.
A Tesco spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday: “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.”
Since 2010, PHE said there has been an “increase in the number of non-travel cases” of the hepatitis E virus – with figures showing infections have risen from from 368 in 2010 to 1243 in 2016.
Official estimates place the numbers of Brits infected by HEV from pork products each year at 150,000 to 200,000.
PHE commissioned research into the issue in 2014 and it was completed two years later - but the findings were held from publication amid fears over “sensitivity”. It was finally published last month.
The research analysed the habits of those infected with a particular strand of HEV - and found Supermarket X’s own-brand raw pork sausages to be a common purchase among them.
The 60 individuals whose shopping habits were analysed had no history of travel outside the UK.
“Epidemiological data relating to usual shopping habits and consumption of ham and sausages were analysed together with typing data to identify any associations with HEV phylotype.
“Study participants who purchased ham and/or sausage from a major supermarket were more likely to have HEV G3-2 infection,” the study reads.
The study continued: “This does not infer blame on the supermarket but the epidemiology of HEV is dynamic and reflects complex animal husbandry practices which need to be explored further.”
Hepatitis E is transmitted by sausages and pork products from Europe, mainly Holland and Germany, the Sunday Times reported.