In Britain they're calling it the "Brexit virus", a potentially deadly bug linked to pork and smallgoods that has caused people to fall ill, some seriously.

The implications for New Zealand are difficult to gauge but the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) is warning people to cook pork products thoroughly.

The virus, a mutant strain of hepatitis E (HEV), has infected pig herds in various European countries including France, Holland, Denmark and Germany.

New Zealand's pork farmers this week expressed alarm that 65,760 tonnes of pig meat imported into the country every year could threaten the local industry.


But yesterday the MPI pointed out that a 13-year-old study indicated some New Zealand pork farms had already been exposed to the virus, but that the pigs don't necessarily carry the virus.

A spokesman for the MPI considers the risk of contracting the virus from pork, whether imported or domestically produced, is low. The ministry said it was not aware of any New Zealand hepatitis E cases attributed to imported pork or smallgoods.

Processed meat, including ham, was put through a combination of processes including heat treatment which was sufficient to eliminate the presence of harmful bacteria and viruses, including HEV, the spokesman said.

HEV attacks the liver and nervous system, and in extreme cases can cause serious illness and even death.

British gastroenterologist Dr Harry Dalton came up with the term "Brexit virus" earlier this month, warning Britons that elderly men, pregnant women, transplant patients and those with low immunity, such as cancer patients, should not eat pork at all.

Dalton, who spent 2005 in New Zealand as Honorary Associate Professor in Clinical Medicine at Auckland University, said because HEV was heat resistant, pork products should be cooked longer than normal.

The HEV virus isn't new but is on the rise in Europe. Most people will experience flu-like symptoms, and in some cases paralysis, from which they recover. But for immune-compromised people, HEV can be serious.

British health officials are concerned that the number of severe cases has trebled in the past six years - to 1244 last year, according to a Public Health England report.


North Otago pig farmer Ian Carter is not only worried that the cheap imported pork is decimating the local industry - he's seen a drop from 1000 commercial pork farms to just 100 in the past 15 years - but he's worried that diseases like HEV from infected European farms could pass to New Zealand pig farms.

He thinks it's wrong that food manufacturers are not required to state the country of origin of food.

To that end Carter, will be in Wellington this week in his role as chairman of the New Zealand Pork Board to present submissions to a select committee on the Consumers' Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill.

Richard Hogg... "as in the pig"...owner of Victoria Ave Meats in Remuera stands by New Zealand pork and can't understand why New Zealand imports any meat at all.

"We support New Zealand only. If New Zealand can sustain itself, why import?"

Hep E precautions

• Hepatitis E was traditionally a tropical disease associated with poor sanitation. The virus has mutated and has infected livestock, particularly pigs, in parts of Europe.


• Humans can catch the virus from undercooked infected pork and pork products. Pork should not be served pink, sausages should be cooked thoroughly and bacon until it is crispy.

• The virus causes flu-like symptoms but can cause serious illness in people with low immune systems, pregnant women and the elderly.