Toxo imported meat might alter nation’s behavior, warns Iceland’s PM

Contrary to the claims of The Reykjavík Grapevin, toxoplasmosis is not a virus; it’s a parasite.

Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð GunnlaugssonBut according to Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, “Because this is such an interesting topic, maybe I will get one more minute to cover it, because it is extremely important that we, precisely, protect the wholesomeness of Icelandic products, that we don’t use additives, steroids and hormones and such in the production of Icelandic meat,’ Sigmundur Davíð pleaded in a live interview on radio-station Bylgjan on Thursday. … Another thing, no less important, is that we remain free of all sorts of infections which are, unfortunately, all to common in very many places. These are not just harmful to the animals but can be very detrimental to people. For example, there is a virus that causes people’s behavior to change. If they eat, for instance, meat in other countries, that has not been cooked particularly well, then people are at risk of ingesting this infection. And it can lead to changes in behavioral patterns. People have even posed the question, and researched, if this might be changing the behavior of whole nations. This sounds like science fiction, but …’

At this point the radio host intervened to ask: Where has this come up?

‘This is very common,’ Sigmundur Davíð replied, ‘for example widely in East-Europe, France, not least Belgium. Actually all over the world. The prevalence is variable, but there are some countries that stand out, where this toxoplasma is rare. That’s Iceland. And Norway. And the UK, actually. Remarkably. There, people are rather safe against this critter.’

The Prime Minister then recommended that the radio hosts interview a scientist or a doctor about this ‘extremely interesting’ phenomenon.

Toxoplasmosis: cats control my mind, or the sink

We have two Persian fluff balls for cats, and one insists on sleeping in the sink.

According to The Atlantic, the parasite Toxoplasmosis gondii comes into us by undercooked meat, well-intentioned placentas (what?), gardening soil, or, most infamously, cats. It is the reason that pregnant women are not supposed to empty litter boxes.

“If you’re young and healthy and have it already, it might provide some benefit, as we saw in our research,” says Ann-Kathrin Stock, a cognitive neurophysiology researcher at the of Dresden in Germany. “But the adverse effects are potentially huge. If you ever really get sick it might be what kills you.”

Many people have what feels like a cold after they get infected with Toxo. The symptoms pass, and the person feels fine. But the Toxo lives on inside them, hidden dormant in little cysts, kept in check by constant pressure from the person’s immune system. If our immune systems become weak, because of a serious illness later in life, though, the Toxo can break out and attack organs like the brain or retina.

“You might lose your ability to see, or lose your cognitive faculties,” Stock said.

Neuroscientist Joraslov Flegr, an eminent voice in Toxo research, told The Atlantic last year that, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

What does it mean to learn that it can also have beneficial effects?

Toxo has been all over the news in recent years, since it became known that the parasite manipulates people’s behavior. Maybe most interestingly and notoriously, it seems to make men more introverted, suspicious, unattractive to women, and oblivious to the way others see them.

Clearly, I have Toxo.

Infected women, inversely, have been shown to be more outgoing, trusting, sexually adventurous, attractive to men, and image-conscious.

Clearly Amy has Toxo.

Parasites in cat poop

As a father of five daughters – involving five pregnancies — I know how to clean up cat poop.

A task I continue daily.

cat.shitSo do others.

Each year in the United States, cats deposit about 1.2 million metric tons of feces into the environment, and that poop is carrying with it what may be a vast and underappreciated public health problem, say scientists July 9 in the journal Trends in Parasitology, a Cell Press publication.

Some of that poop is laden with an infectious parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan that has recently caused toxoplasmosis epidemics in otherwise healthy people, not just in pregnant women or people with immune deficiencies. Additional concerns have been raised by studies linking T. gondii to schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, brain cancer, and even to kids’ trouble in school.

“The accumulation of Toxoplasma gondii oocysts, found in cat feces, may be a much bigger problem than we realize because of their apparent long life and their association with some diseases,” said E. Fuller Torrey, who directs the Stanley Medical Research Institute.

He calls for better control of the cat population, especially feral cats, and more research. Surveys have shown that our backyards and communities may harbor three to 400 oocysts per square foot or more in places where cats frequently leave deposits. Each and every one of those oocysts has the potential to cause an infection.

My kids wouldn’t go in the sandbox; said it was a giant kitty litter.

Dogs, cats, raw meat risk factors for ocular toxoplasmosis in Brazil

Ferreira, et al report in Epidemiology & Infection the aim of this study was to investigate risk factors for ocular toxoplasmosis (OT) in patients who received medical attention at a public health service.

Three hundred and forty-nine consecutive patients, treated in the Outpatient Eye Clinic of Hospital de Base, São José do Rio Preto, São Paulo state, dogcat2012Brazil, were enrolled in this study. After an eye examination, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used to determine anti-Toxoplasma gondii antibodies.

The results showed that 25·5% of the patients were seronegative and 74·5% were seropositive for IgG anti-T. gondii antibodies; of these 27·3% had OT and 72·7% had other ocular diseases (OOD). The presence of cats or dogs [odds ratio (OR) 2·22, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1·24–3·98, P = 0·009] and consumption of raw or undercooked meat (OR 1·77, 95% CI 1·05–2·98, P = 0·03) were associated with infection but not with the development of OT. Age (OT 48·2 ± 21·2 years vs. OOD: 69·5 ± 14·7 years, P < 0·0001) and the low level of schooling/literacy (OT vs. OOD: OR 0·414, 95% CI 0·2231–0·7692, P = 0·007) were associated with OT.

The presence of dogs and cats as well as eating raw/undercooked meat increases the risk of infection, but is not associated with the development of OT.

Toxoplasmosis linked to personality changes

Amy says I can be an asshole.

She’s not the only one; but I.can blame it on the toxo.

Better than blaming parents.

Tori Rodriguez writes in Scientific American that people who feel sociable or reckless may have toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by the microscopic parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which the CDC estimates has infected about 22.5 percent of Americans older than 12 years old.

Researchers tested participants for T. gondii infection and had them complete a personality questionnaire. They found that both men and women infected with T. gondii were more extroverted and less conscientious than the infection-free participants. These changes are thought to result from the parasite’s influence on brain chemicals, the scientists write in the May/June issue of the European Journal of Personality.

“Toxoplasma manipulates the behavior of its animal host by increasing the concentration of dopamine and by changing levels of certain hormones,” says study author Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

In the new study, a pattern appeared in infected men: the longer they had been infected, the less conscientious they were. This correlation supports the researchers’ hypothesis that the personality changes are a result of the parasite, rather than personality influencing the risk of infection. Past studies that used outdated personality surveys also found that toxoplasmosis-related personality changes increased with the length of infection.

I can now blame all my personality traits on toxo; but cats probably aren’t causing Danish women to kill themselves

I’ve got a thing for the Danes.

The kid is named Sorenne.

But a new study in the Archives of General Psychiatry concludes that Danish women infected with the toxoplasmosis parasite were 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their toxo-free counterparts.

Slate reports that when humans get infected—more often from rare meat and unwashed veggies than from cat boxes—the parasite settles into our muscles and brains and stays there, hidden from the immune system in protective cysts. About a third of people in developed countries are toxo carriers. The conventional medical wisdom is that toxo causes a brief mono-like illness in otherwise healthy people and becomes dormant thereafter.

However, a growing body of research suggests that toxo can subtly affect human behavior. Carriers are, then, more likely to try to kill themselves, and nearly three times more likely to die in car accidents.

The effects of toxoplasmosis vary by gender in rats and humans. Infected male rats become markedly more impulsive, females not as much. A series of small studies that compared personality tests in carriers and noncarriers found that men with toxoplasmosis were more “expedient, suspicious, jealous, and dogmatic,” whereas female carriers were warmer and more conscientious.

Organic meat may have higher toxoplasmosis risk

Amy likes her lamb; and she likes it rare.

I’m ambivalent. But when I do cook lamb, which is abundant in Australia, I always use a tip-sensitive digital thermometer to make sure it gets to at least 140F and not overcook.

I worry about the worms.

Toxoplasmosis doesn’t grab the headlines the way salmonella or E. coli outbreaks do, but new research suggests that some organic meats may be more likely to carry this parasite, which can then be transmitted to consumers who eat these meats, if undercooked.

Cari Nierenberg of My Health News Daily reports the authors of a paper published online May 22 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases write, "The new trend in the production of free-range, organically raised meat could increase the risk of Toxoplasma gondii contamination of meat.”

The researchers point out that eating undercooked meat — whether organic or conventionally raised — especially pork, lamb and wild game such as venison, is one of the main ways people become infected with the toxoplasma parasite. People can also contract the infection by not washing raw fruits and vegetables, which may have come in contact with soil contaminated by cat feces.

Cats can spread toxoplasmosis after eating other infected animals and then passing the parasite along in their feces. This can contaminate not only home litter boxes, but the soil or water if a cat goes outside.

Although perhaps as many as one in five Americans carry the parasite, few people have symptoms because the immune system in healthy people does a good job of preventing T. gondii from causing illness. Toxoplasmosis presents more of a threat to pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system, especially if they change cat litter boxes or touch contaminated soil when gardening.

The new research reviews the foods most likely to carry the parasite, and how people can prevent becoming sickened by it. The foods with the greatest chance of carrying toxoplasmosis parasites in the U.S. include raw ground beef or rare lamb; unpasteurized goat’s milk; locally produced cured, dried or smoked meat; and raw oysters, clams or mussels.

Growing consumer demand for "free-range" and "organically raised" meats, especially pork and poultry, will probably increase the prevalence of T. gondii when people undercook and eat these foods, according to the study’s authors, Dr. Jeffrey Jones, of the parasitic diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and J.P. Dubey, of the USDA’s Animal Parasitic Disease Laboratory.

That’s because as more pigs or chickens are raised in less confined, more animal- friendly environments, they have greater access to grass, soil, feed or water that may be in contact with infected cat feces, or to rodents or wildlife infected with T. gondii.

Compared with chickens raised indoors, the prevalence of the parasite in free-range chickens is much higher, anywhere from 17 percent up to 100 percent, in some estimates. (But the risk is low for chicken eggs, the authors noted.)

Other research has shown that more organically raised pigs have tested positive for T. gondii than conventionally raised pigs.

Sheep also have a higher likelihood of being contaminated with toxoplasma, as do game meats such as deer, elk, moose and wild pig. Beef and dairy products have not yet played a main role in transmitting the infection, except for eating raw or undercooked ground beef.

"Toxoplasmosis in an under-recognized source of food-borne illness and attracts little public attention," said Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. "People are not as familiar with this parasite, so we think it doesn’t happen much," he explained.

Yet, toxoplasmosis is one of five "neglected parasitic diseases" targeted by the CDC as a public health priority.

By one recent U.S. estimate, toxoplasmosis was the second-leading cause of food-borne illness deaths (salmonella is first), claiming more than 300 lives a year. The parasite was also responsible for more than 4,000 hospitalizations annually, ranking it fourth among food pathogens.

As consumers shift their eating preferences, whether it’s to organic foods or to less-processed foods, the microbial risks are altered, Powell said. "Whatever food- production system we come up with, some ‘bugs’ will find a way to adapt and flourish. So the key is continual vigilance."

Reasons to cook meat: Toxoplasma gondii associated with the consumption of lamb meat, Aveyron (France), November 2010

Thanks to our French friend, Albert Amgar, for forwarding this item.

On 15 November 2010, 3 confirmed cases of toxoplasmosis of the same family were reported to the Midi-Pyrénées Regional Health Agency. A collective outbreak of food poisoning was suspected with regard to the single common meal taken on 3 October 2010 that included undercooked lamb’s leg. Clusters of toxoplasmosis cases are rare; therefore, investigations on the episode were conducted.

Epidemiological, clinical and serological data were collected from the participants in the meal. Genotyping of the strain isolated in the suspected food was performed as well as a traceability investigation.

All five sensitive people of the seven persons exposed during the meal had a recent uncomplicated evolutionary toxoplasmosis (attack rate 100 %; mean age 21 years). DNA genotyping in the frozen half lamb’s leg revealed a type II. The farm of origin of the lamb could not be identified.

Our investigations contributed to describe a Toxoplasma food poisoning limited in size, and to determine the origin of the contamination. However, other cases may have gone unnotified, considering the infection is usually asymptomatic. Toxoplasma foodborne illnesses are poorly documented and information on the possibility of contamination due to insufficiently cooked lamb meat should be spread more widely.

Is toxoplasmosis underestimated in the food supply?

When toxoplasma in pork ranked second in last year’s top 10 riskiest combinations of foods and disease-causing microorganisms at $1.2 billion a year, some wondered, what?

Now the Brits have chirped in, saying much more needs to be known about Toxoplasma gondii in the country’s food and especially the impact on pregnant women.

The UK Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) Advisory Committee of the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) is seeking stakeholder views on its draft report relating to toxoplasma in the food chain (available at

According to the UK National Health Service (NHS), food sources include undercooked or raw meat, raw cured meat (including Parma ham, salami) and unpasteurised goat’s milk, and the infection can pass between humans from a pregnant woman to an unborn baby.

Although toxoplasmosis usually only causes mild flu-like symptoms in adults, the ACMSF said it can be fatal to babies, and has been linked with associated jaundice, eye infections and seizures.

The FSA’s scientific advisory committee was asked to consider whether current evidence indicates a food safety issue that needs to be addressed, what food sources could present a significant risk and identify further work needed on UK prevalence and foodborne sources of toxoplasmosis.

Top-10 food-pathogen combos for risk reduction efforts

If policy types are going to focus resources, it helps to know where to get the most bang for the regulatory dollar.

Researchers at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute have attempted to identify the Top 10 riskiest combinations of foods and disease-causing microorganisms.

The report, Ranking the Risks: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations with the Greatest Burden on Public Health, lists the number of illnesses, costs, and overall public health burden of specific microbes in particular types of food. The list includes:

Campylobacter in poultry — costs $1.3 billion a year
Toxoplasma in pork — costs $1.2 billion a year
Listeria in deli meats — costs $1.1 billion a year
Salmonella in poultry — costs $700 million a year
Listeria in dairy products — costs $700 million a year
Salmonella in complex foods — costs $600 million a year
Norovirus in complex foods — costs $900 million a year
Salmonella in produce — costs $500 million a year
Toxoplasma in beef — costs $700 million a year
Salmonella in eggs — costs $400 million a year

“The number of hazards and scale of the food system make for a critical challenge for consumers and government alike,” said Michael Batz, lead author of the report and head of Food Safety Programs at the Emerging Pathogens Institute. “Government agencies must work together to effectively target their efforts. If we don’t identify which pairs of foods and microbes present the greatest burden, we’ll waste time and resources and put even more people at risk.”

Of these, the new report concludes that five leading bugs—Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Toxoplasma gondii, and norovirus – result in $12.7 billion in annual economic loss – with the Top 10 pathogen-food combinations responsible for more than $8 billion. That burden includes the cost of medical care and lost productivity from employee sick days, as well as the expense of serious complications or chronic disabilities that result from the acute illness or sometimes strike after acute illness goes away.

Douglas Archer, associate dean for research at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences who reviewed the report, told The Gainesville Sun, "You can’t inspect away foodborne illnesses.”

Of course, a farming rep told the Sun, food producers have to be diligent in ensuring food safety, but the public also has to play a role.

Frankie Hall, director of agricultural policy for the Florida Farm Bureau said, producers can do a good job only to have the person who takes the food home handle it improperly, adding, "There is responsibility for food safety when you get it back to the home.”

J. Glenn Morris, the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida and one of the authors of the study told the Washington Post that policymakers at the USDA, which regulates meat, poultry and some egg products, and the FDA, which oversees the rest of the food supply, should consider the economic burden on society when deciding how to direct food safety resources, adding, “You can begin to use these more sophisticated analytic tools, which can serve as the basis of spending public dollars in terms of food safety.”

The report, which was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, includes the following key findings and recommendations for food safety officials:

• Poultry contaminated with Camplylobacter bacteria topped the list, sickening more than 600,000 Americans at a cost of $1.3 billion per year. Salmonella in poultry also ranks in the Top 10, with $700 million due to costs of illness. Infections with these microorganisms can cause acute illness such as vomiting but also can lead to hospitalization or death. Campylobacter infection can also cause paralysis and other neuromuscular problems. The report questions whether new safety standards announced by the USDA for young chickens and turkeys are sufficient, and recommends evaluating and tightening these standards over time.

• Salmonella is the leading disease-causing bug overall, causing more than $3 billion in disease burden annually. In addition to poultry, Salmonella-contaminated produce, eggs and multi-ingredient foods all rank in the Top 10. The report recommends that the FDA and USDA develop a joint Salmonella initiative that coordinates efforts in a number of foods.

• Four combinations in the Top 10 – Listeria in deli meats and soft cheeses, and Toxoplasma in pork and beef – pose serious risks to pregnant women and developing fetuses, causing stillbirth or infants born with irreversible mental and physical disabilities. The report recommends that agencies strengthen prevention programs for these pathogens and improve education efforts aimed at pregnant women.

• Norovirus is the most common foodborne pathogen and is largely associated with multi-ingredient items that can become contaminated, often by service-industry workers who handle food. The researchers recommend strengthening state and local food safety programs through increased funding, training and adoption by states of the most recent FDA Food Code.

• The report lists E. coli O157:H7 as the sixth pathogen in overall burden, with the majority due to contaminated beef and produce. The report recommends federal agencies continue to target E. coli O157:H7, due to the particularly devastating injuries it causes in small children, including kidney failure, lifetime health complications, and death.

The report is available at: