Project confirms growing threat in Europe from toxins created by microalgae

A project looking at the risk of ciguatera poisoning in Europe has finished work after almost five years.

An international scientific meeting was held in October for the EuroCigua project which began in April 2016 and ends this month.

Ciguatera is a type of food poisoning associated with consumption of fishery products that contain toxins produced by a microalgae called Gambierdiscus toxicus. The toxin does not affect the appearance, odor or taste of the fish and is not destroyed by cooking, refrigeration or freezing.

It causes an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 cases per year worldwide and outbreaks have been reported in Spain and Portugal. From 2012 to 2018, four European countries reported 23 ciguatera outbreaks and 167 cases.

Results confirmed the appearance of ciguatera in the European Union, having identified native species of fish with ciguatoxins in Macaronesia, Madeira and the Canary Islands. The presence of Gambierdiscus in the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus and Greece was also detected, as well as the first finding in the Balearic Islands.

The Spanish Food Safety and Nutrition Agency (AESAN) organized the online workshop, which was restricted to consortium members and some scientists working on related projects.

Emerging issue for Europe
The event covered epidemiological data, cases and outbreaks reported in Europe; rate of ciguatoxin-positive fish samples in Madeira and the Canary Islands; an LC-MS/MS method to detect ciguatoxin; confirmation of Caribbean-CTX-1 as the toxin responsible for contamination of fish in European waters; and the potential impact of climate change and globalized markets on ciguatera as an emerging risk in Europe.

The work received funding of €2 million ($2.4 million) of which half was financed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the other half by the project partners. Other projects that study ciguatera in Japan, Australia and Norway were presented to 100 participants.

AESAN coordinated the project alongside 15 scientific institutions from Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Greece and Cyprus. EuroCigua was divided into four sub-projects: management and scientific coordination; epidemiology; evaluation of ciguatoxins in seafood and the environment; and characterization of ciguatoxins present in the EU, including development of reference materials which will help improve techniques to detect these toxins.

Takeshi Yasumoto, Robert Dickey from the University of Texas and  Ronald Manger, scientific advisor to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were among those present. The event was also attended by officials from EFSA, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Ciguatera is most commonly caused by eating barracuda, moray eel, grouper, amberjack, sea bass, sturgeon, parrot fish, surgeonfish, and red snapper. Symptoms usually develop three to six hours after eating contaminated fish but it may take up to 30 hours. They can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. Some people may have a tingling sensation, itching, metallic taste in the mouth, or blurred vision. Others find cold things feel hot and hot items feel cold. Symptoms usually last a few days but can stay for months or years.

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