Enterococci belong to the lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and they are of importance in foods due to their involvement in food spoilage and fermentations, as well as their utilisation as probiotics in humans and slaughter animals. However, they are also important nosocomial pathogens that cause bacteraemia, endocarditis and other infections. Some strains are resistant to many antibiotics and possess virulence factors such as adhesins, invasins, pili and haemolysin. The role of enterococci in disease has raised questions on their safety for use in foods or as probiotics. Studies on the incidence of virulence traits among enterococcal strains isolated from food showed that some can harbour virulence traits, but it is also thought that virulence is not the result of the presence of specific virulence determinants alone, but is rather a more intricate process. Specific genetic lineages of hospital-adapted strains have emerged, such as E. faecium clonal complex (CC) 17 and E. faecalis CC2, CC9, CC28 and CC40, which are high risk enterococcal clonal complexes. These are characterised by the presence of antibiotic resistance determinants and/or virulence factors, often located on pathogenicity islands or plasmids. Mobile genetic elements thus are considered to play a major role in the establishment of problematic lineages. Although enterococci occur in high numbers in certain types of fermented cheeses and sausages, they are not deliberately added as starter cultures. Some E. faecium and E. faecalis strains are used as probiotics and are ingested in high numbers, generally in the form of pharmaceutical preparations. Such probiotics are administered to treat diarrhoea, antibiotic-associated diarrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome, to lower cholesterol levels or to improve host immunity. In animals, enterococcal probiotics are mainly used to treat or prevent diarrhoea, for immune stimulation or to improve growth. From a food microbiological point of view, the safety of the bacteria used as probiotics must be assured, and data on the major strains in use so far indicate that they are safe. The advantage of use of probiotics in slaughter animals, from a food microbiological point of view, lies in the reduction of zoonotic pathogens in the gastrointestinal tract of animals which prevents the transmission of these pathogens via food. The use of enterococcal probiotics should, in view of the development of problematic lineages and the potential for gene transfer in the gastrointestinal tract of both humans and animals, be carefully monitored, and the advantages of using these and new strains should be considered in a well contemplated risk/benefit analysis.
Copyright © 2011 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.