Qualitative Assessment for Toxoplasma gondii Exposure Risk Associated with Meat Products in the United States
Toxoplasma gondii is a global protozoan parasite capable of infecting most warm-blooded animals. Although healthy adult humans generally have no symptoms, severe illness does occur in certain groups, including congenitally infected fetuses and newborns, immunocompromised individuals including transplant patients. Epidemiological studies have demonstrated that consumption of raw or undercooked meat products is one of the major sources of infection with T. gondii. The goal of this study was to develop a framework to qualitatively estimate the exposure risk to T. gondii from various meat products consumed in the United States. Risk estimates of various meats were analyzed by a farm-to-retail qualitative assessment that included evaluation of farm, abattoir, storage and transportation, meat processing, packaging, and retail modules. It was found that exposure risks associated with meats from free-range chickens, nonconfinement-raised pigs, goats, and lamb are higher than those from confinement-raised pigs, cattle, and caged chickens. For fresh meat products, risk at the retail level was similar to that at the farm level unless meats had been frozen or moisture enhanced. Our results showed that meat processing, such as salting, freezing, commercial hot air drying, long fermentation times, hot smoking, and cooking, are able to reduce T. gondii levels in meat products. whereas nitrite and/or nitrate, spice, low pH, and cold storage have no effect on the viability of T. gondii tissue cysts. Raw-fermented sausage, cured raw meat, meat that is not hot-air dried, and fresh processed meat were associated with higher exposure risks compared with cooked meat and frozen meat. This study provides a reference for meat management control programs to determine critical control points and serves as the foundation for future quantitative risk assessments.