When food makes you sick - on the trail of germs

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Changed on: 08.09.2020

Science has so far described over 250 pathogens that can cause food-borne diseases. However, only a handful of pathogens are responsible for most of the food-borne infections.


Unter Gesamt-Genom-Sequenzierung versteht man das Bestimmen des kompletten Erbguts eines Organismus. Das bedeutet, der vollständige Aufbau der DNA ist bekannt – und das mit einer Präzision, die mit anderen Bestimmungsmethoden nicht erreicht werden kann.


Wenn Menschen durch den Genuss von mit Krankheitserregern verunreinigten Lebensmitteln erkranken, so zielt die Ausbruchserhebung darauf ab, weitere Erkrankungen zu stoppen und künftig zu verhindern.

Hühnchenfilet-Pfanne mit aufgeschnittenem Gemüse auf Kochherd

Compliance with general kitchen hygiene rules at home plays an important role in preventing food-borne infections. What to look out for when shopping, storing and preparing food.


AGES-TV: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Franz Allerberger über die wichtigsten Erreger von lebensmittelbedingten Erkrankungen, wie man ihnen auf die Spur kommt und über die wichtigsten Hygieneregeln, die heute noch genau so gültig sind wie vor hundert Jahren.


Contaminated food products can cause a series of health problems. Developments in food production, distribution, processing and consumption, environmental changes, new bacteria and harmful substances pose new threats in terms of food safety again and again.
Microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, are everywhere. They are also found in animal husbandry and farming and, thus, in foods. While there is only a small number of germs that can cause diseases compared to the enormous number of different types of microorganisms in existence, their effects on human health can be fatal.

Pathogens or agents that can be transferred between animals and humans cause infectious diseases called zoonoses. Such pathogens are transferred through direct contact with infected animals, but also through food contaminated with such agents.

Surveillance and Monitoring

Zoonoses that are animal diseases, such as Brucellosis or Bovine Tuberculosis, have been controlled in Austria for decades based on EU law, the recommendations issued by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and national legislation. Our livestock population is considered officially free of a variety of animal diseases, thanks to our successfully conducted monitoring programmes.

Specifically target-oriented programmes are used for monitoring the most common foodborne pathogens or agents, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. They help in the controlling of Salmonella in animal populations that are typically affected, such as laying hens, broilers (chickens and turkeys) and breeders. Additionally, monitoring regimes are used along the food chain, such as in the case of Campylobacter. Close cooperation between the federal and provincial authorities and AGES is a must for a successful monitoring.

Food products are monitored according to an audit plan (inspections of farms and facilities) and a sample plan (number of samples to be taken) in Austria. AGES takes part in the preparation of these plans, providing statistical and technical know-how and ensures information transfer with the European Commission via the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

AGES as Disease Detective

One of the core tasks of the segment Animal Health is its function as the National Reference Laboratory for various zoonoses and epizootic diseases. The veterinary laboratories of AGES are characterised by their high quality standards in lab diagnostics. AGES develops crisis plans, monitoring programmes, monitoring studies, risk analyses and early warning systems for the control and surveillance of animal diseases on behalf of the Federal Government.

The laboratories of the segment Food Safety are essential for the testing of animal-based food products in Austria. Here, it is decided whether a food product is safe to eat, not suitable for human consumption or even harmful to humans.

Finally, the Centre for Foodborne Infectious Diseases in Graz bundles the National Reference Centres for the most important pathogens. Here, pathogens are identified in detail (genetic fingerprints). Ideally, it should be possible to trace the origin of a foodborne infection back along the food chain, given that the pathogens stem from infected individuals and food, as well as feed products. As a result, it should be possible to find the cause of an infection across borders by comparing the data with data from other similar European organisations.