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Enteropathogenic Vibrios: A Growing Worldwide Public Health Risk Associated with Seafood Products

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The number of Vibrio infections appears to be steadily increasing compared to other major foodborne pathogens


What are the enteropathogenic vibrios?

Members of the genus Vibrio are Gram-negative mobile rods, usually producing oxidase and catalase. Over 100 Vibrio species have been described and around a dozen of these have been demonstrated to cause infections in humans (Codex, 2010; Hartnell et al., 2019). The species most associated with foodborne infections include V. parahaemolyticus, V. vulnificus and V. cholerae (FDA-2012).

Pathogenic V. parahaemolyticus strains carry virulence genes coding for the thermostable direct hemolysin (tdh) or the tdh-related hemolysin (trh), or both. Virulent strains represent less than 3 % of all V. parahaemolyticus strains isolated from the environment or foods (EFSA, 2012).

The pathogenic mechanisms of V. vulnificus have not been clearly elucidated, and its virulence appears to be multifaceted; Therefore, all strains are considered virulent (Codex, 2010).

The only serogroups of pathogenic V. cholerae currently recognized as causing significant cholera outbreaks are O1 (mostly the Inaba and Ogawa serotypes) and O139 (FDA,2012; Codex, 2010). The key determinants of V. cholerae virulence, the cholera toxin and the toxin co-regulated pilus are parts of horizontally acquired Mobile Genetic Elements (Kumar et al.,2020). Non-O1/O139 V. cholerae strains are less pathogenic (EFSA, 2012).


What are the risks for the consumers?

Enteropathogenic vibrios’ virulence are responsible for the gastrointestinal symptoms, that is, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever, mild to severe watery diarrhea observed during the infection (FDA, 2012).They mainly induce huge losses of ions and water from the epithelium cells of the human intestines.

The gastroenteritis is generally mild or moderate and self-limiting in healthy people. However, in susceptible people (immunocompromised states, diabetes, AIDS, etc.), the infections can be more severe and require hospitalization as possibly leading to septicemia and death.

V. vulnificus and V. parahaemolyticus also can cause wound infections either through wounds resulting from handling fish, crustaceans, or shellfish, or when a pre-existing wound is exposed to contaminated marine or estuarine waters. Beyond inflammation at the wound site, the infection can become systemic, with affected people developing fever, altered mental status, and hypotension. Resulting lesions frequently require surgical debridement or amputation (FDA, 2012).

Ingestion of large numbers (10 6 - 10 9) of Vibrio cells is usually needed to develop an infection. However, even the initial contamination level could be low on a product contaminated through sea water, the risk of infection increases rapidly due to the high growth rate of Vibrio species, especially at inappropriate storage conditions (EFSA, 2012). A correlation exists between probability of infection and warmer months when water temperatures are greater than 15°C (FDA, 2012).

Vibrio is recognized as a primary cause of bacterial gastroenteritis associated with seafood consumption in many areas of the world, including Asia and the U.S. The number of infections related to these pathogens has increased since 1990 (Codex, 2010; EFSA, 2012). There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that climate change, coupled to epidemiological and demographic factors are increasing the geographical spread as well as incidence of these pathogens from foodborne sources (Hartnell et al., 2019).

Key figures:

The US CDC estimated that around 50,000 foodborne Vibrio infections occur each year in the USA and that hospitalization and death rates range from 22,5% / 0,9 % for Vibrio parahaemolyticus (86% foodborne) up to 91,3 % / 34,8 % for V. vulnificus (47% foodborne) (Scallan et al., 2011). Compared to other major foodborne pathogens, the number of Vibrio infections also appears to be steadily increasing; Compared with 2016–2018, the US Vibrio incidence in 2019 (0,9 cases / 100,000) increased significantly (79%) (CDC, 2020).


How are enteropathogenic vibrios transmitted?

V. parahaemolyticus, Vibrio cholerae, and Vibrio vulnificus are common residents of tropical and temperate marine environments; Their distribution is strongly associated with water salinity. V. cholerae occupies freshwater and brackish habitats, mostly introduced through human feces, whereas V. vulnificus is present in environments with intermediate levels of salinity and V. parahaemolyticus shows preference by more saline environments and may be present in offshore waters (EFSA, 2012). Epidemic V. cholerae is confined to developing countries with warm climates (Codex, 2010).

Vibrios are concentrated in the gut of filter-feeding molluscan shellfish, such as oysters, clams and mussels, where they can multiply (EFSA, 2012).

Typically, Vibrio infections are initiated from exposure to seawater, consumption of raw or undercooked seafood produce (Hartnell et al., 2019) or drinking waters contaminated with V. cholerae (Codex, 2010; FDA, 2012).


What are all food industries affected by enteropathogenic vibrios?

Foods associated with Vibrio infections include crayfish, lobster, shrimp, fried mackerel, mussel, tuna, seafood salad, raw oysters, clams, steamed/boiled crabmeat, scallops, squid, sea urchin, and sardines. 

These products include either raw and partially treated seafood (heat treatment, high pressure) or even thoroughly treated seafood products later exposed to cross-contamination through contaminated food production environments.

Improper refrigeration of seafood products contaminated with Vibrio may allow the rapid proliferation of bacterial cells, due to their high growth rates, with a corresponding increased risk of infection. Vibrio can survive for extended periods in chilled and frozen foods (EFSA, 2012, 2021; FDA, 2012).


How can enteropathogenic vibrios be prevented and controlled in the food industry?

The food safety concerns associated with enteropathogenic vibrios and seafood have led to the development by scientific or regulatory bodies of specific risk assessments and potential risk management strategies for their control (FDA, 2005, 2019, 2021; Codex, 2010; EFSA, 2012; FAO, 2016).

All this supports either specific regulations concerning seafoods products (21CFR part 123) or the broader requirements of EU and US regulations i) for the prevention of adulteration (EU 178/2002; Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act,1938; FDA-FSMA, 2011) and ii) for the mandatory implementation of HACCP- based control systems and Good Hygiene/Manufacturing practices (FDA 21CFR 1 et al.; EU 852/2004).


How can the presence of enteropathogenic vibrios be detected in the food industry?

EU and US regulations further require that food business operators shall perform microbiological testing as appropriate when they are validating or verifying the effectiveness of their HACCP-based control procedures and good hygiene practices (EU 852/2004, 2073/2005; FDA-FSMA, 2011).

Then, even without any Vibrio formal regulatory microbiological criteria (EFSA, 2012; Hartnell et al, 2019; FDA, 2021b), microbiological monitoring for enteropathogenic Vibrio is often put in place by regulatory agencies (EU 625/2017) and by food business operators (FDA, 2019; FCD, 2020) primarily for customer protection but additionally for the prevention of both mandatory product recall (FDA-FSMA, 2011; EU 178/2002) and legal prosecution.

Different microbiological methods either traditional or molecular for the detection, the enumeration, the species identification and the screening for Vibrio virulence determinants have been elaborated to support the management of the enteropathogenic vibrios at different stages, from the monitoring of Vibrio in harvest-areas to the investigation of Vibrio outbreaks, including the post-harvest process verification and the end-product testing. 

They include both:

- national or international standard methods (ISO 21872:2017 and 2020, Hartnell et al., 2019, FDA, 2004, 2017; US-EPA, 2010, FAO, 2016),

- and validated (AOAC) alternative methods developed for the same purposes. These methods additionally bring ease of use and/or reduced times to results compared to the standard methods, offering flexibility to the management of the business flows.

BioMérieux provides the food safety managers with actual microbiological solutions for the effective management of enteropathogenic Vibrio risks along the Food Chain.


Sample and Culture Media Preparation:
- DILUMAT® gravimetric diluter
- SMASHER®  lab blender
- MASTERCLAVE® automated media preparator

Culture Media:
- Large range of traditional culture media

Quality Indicators:

- VITEK® 2

Pathogen Detection:

Jean-Pierre Facon
Written by
Jean-Pierre FACON

(PhD), Biotech consultant

Picture Isabelle DESFORGES
Written by

Global Marketing Scientific Manager / Scientific Affairs

Food Business Industry Unit, bioMérieux SA, France

French Delegate of Food Microbiology Standardization committees
(AFNOR V08B, ISO/TC 34/SC 9 and CEN/TC 463)


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EU Regulation 178/2002 laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Safety Authority and laying down procedures in matters of food safety.

EU Regulation 852/2004 on the hygiene of foodstuffs.23 p.

EU REGULATION 625/2017 on official controls and other official activities performed to ensure the application of food and feed law.

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(expected in 2021) Project ISO 21872-1:2017/AMD1 Microbiology of the food chain—Horizontal method for the determination of Vibrio spp -Part1:Detection of potentially enteropathogenic Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Vibrio cholera and Vibrio vulnificus – Amendment1:Inclusion of performance testing for ASPW, TCBS and SNA
ISO/TS 21872-2:2020 Microbiology of the food chain - Horizontal method for the determination of Vibrio spp. - Part 2: Enumeration of total and potentially enteropathogenic Vibrio parahaemolyticus in seafood using nucleic acid hybridization.

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