Exploring the chopping board microbiome

Lead Research Organisation: Aston University
Department Name: College of Health and Life Sciences


Many foodborne infections begin in the home, often through poor hygiene where chopping boards provide an opportunity for raw foods to cross-contaminate. By undertaking microbiological analysis of chopping boards, including investigating the antimicrobial resistance profiles of the organisms found, we will address two of the areas of the priority area "assuring food safety and standards":
How can the FSA better understand and reduce the impact of foodborne pathogens?
How can the FSA improve the evidence base concerning antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and food?

We will use a combination of contributary, collaborative and co-creation citizen science approaches whereby we will use our undergraduate Bioscience students as ambassadors to hard-to-reach communities. Ambassadors and citizens will be involved in the design of protocols and materials, as well as the final dissemination outputs including educational materials for communities and academic papers.

We have six work packages that allow us to achieve our objectives.

WP1 - Recruitment of citizen scientists. Our Biosciences students undertake microbiological practical work as a core part of their programme. Through our student community, we will recruit ~150-200 ambassadors who will give us privileged access to their homes and communities, as well as providing rapid sample collection as they will be travelling to campus regularly. Samples will be collected by our participants using the ambassadors as facilitators.

WP2 - Co-creation of sampling methods. With a subset of our ambassadors and their households, we will co-create our final sampling methods. These will be designed to be robust and reproducible whilst providing sound scientific outcomes and being acceptable to the end users. We will co-create the instructional material to ensure it is effective and fit-for-purpose.

WP3 - Chopping board sampling. Ambassadors will collect sampling kits and engage their households with sampling. Alongside this, they will record the relevant demographic information as well as key parameters relating to chopping board use and behavioural information.

WP4 - Sample analysis. This will be conducted either by our project manager or by the participants themselves at "open sessions" where they can visit the laboratory and undertake the microbiological testing themselves.

WP6 - Dissemination. We will use social media, including "takeovers" by our citizens to publicise the project throughout. The academic team and our ambassadors will run an end-of-project showcase for our citizens and the wider community to present the project and its outcomes. Ultimately, we want to develop best practice guidance for chopping board use for each community. Using our scientific findings, our ambassadors and citizens will co-create, with the academic team, educational materials specifically targeted to our community groups for distribution to promote behavioural change. We will publish the microbiological and citizen science outcomes of the project with our ambassadors and citizens involved in writing the manuscripts and named as authors as appropriate.

WP7 - Monitoring and evaluation. We will quantify project success in terms of number of engagements (ambassadors and participants recorded separately). Our project manager will replicate key results to ensure scientific reproducibility of our findings. We will evaluate the societal benefits through electronic surveys and individual interviews. For our participants we will assess changes in food hygiene knowledge and behaviour and, for our ambassadors, development in their knowledge of citizen science.

Technical Summary

By analysing the microbiology of chopping boards, we address two priorities of "assuring food safety and standards":

1. How can the FSA better understand and reduce the impact of foodborne pathogens?
We will access hard-to-reach communities in authentic environments to gather robust evidence of hygiene practice and microbiological outcomes. By monitoring cleaning regimes in a minimally invasive manner, and identifying best practice, we will produce bespoke educational materials used to bring about behavioural change.

2. How can the FSA improve the evidence base concerning antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and food?
We will assess AMR of the organisms identified and correlate this with the cleaning regimes to inform our ultimate recommendations. Our showcase event will educate our communities about the risks of AMR, especially in a food context.

We have identified hard-to-access communities with intrinsic links to Aston University and will gain privileged access through ambassadors. This will diversify citizen science and determine if there are any bespoke food hygiene challenges. These groups are those that identify as minority ethnic and those in multioccupancy households. We will use our ambassadors to attract members of their households; we have trusted relationships with our ambassadors through our roles as educators. Ambassadors and citizens will be involved in co-creation at all stages of the project as well as testing their own samples in the laboratory if they wish to, being fully integrated into the project. Ambassadors will facilitate engaging participants with the project, providing an established trusted link to reduce any associated anxieties.

By involving citizens in the project, we will gain authentic samples in a manner otherwise impossible - it is vital the microbiological samples arrive for testing within a couple of hours. We also gain huge benefits of scale, having hundreds of students who may choose to take part as ambassadors.


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Description Participants were invited to cocreate sampling and analysis through workshops. Sampling was mainly designed with ambassadors (Aston students with an interest in the project) with input from their contacts and analysis through ambassadors and participants who attended the laboratory sessions. A sampling kit was developed for ease of use by untrained participants, including swabs (sponges), templates to ensure consistency of sampling and a secure bag in which to return the samples. Once samples were returned to the lab, ambassadors and participants tested them for growth on various agars using cocreated approaches. We had interest from 45 student ambassadors and ~30 of these were actively engaged with aspects of the project. Ambassadors undertook further participant recruitment from their personal contacts and households. Due to attrition during the project, we ended up with 25 samples that were tested.

A total of 25 chopping boards were sampled to evaluate the presence of key foodborne disease-causing bacteria and bacteria originating from the human gut or skin. Out of all chopping boards included in this study, gut bacteria were present on 44% and skin bacteria were present on 52%. Both gut and skin bacteria were isolated from 24% of chopping boards, and 28% of chopping boards harboured neither skin nor gut bacteria.

Reflecting on the goals we set in our evaluation framework, we can say that we partially achieved our aims. Our success was primarily hindered by the timeline for the project slipping with cyclical ethical approval due to co-creation taking longer than expected. This meant that the bulk of collection slipped to the summer where fewer students were around and reduced participation levels. It would be good to consider wider sector approaches to dealing with such ethical approvals, and to consider the funding duration of such projects to build in time for true cocreation. The participants certainly benefited from the project, but the breadth and depth of involvement was hindered.
Exploitation Route We intend to publish our methods for citizen science in microbiology.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink

Description the study contributed to a wider project report (https://www.food.gov.uk/research/research-projects/citizen-science-for-food-standards-challenges-programme-review) and individual case study (https://www.food.gov.uk/research/research-projects/exploring-the-chopping-board-microbiome-lessons-learned) understanding the role that citizen science can play in this field.
First Year Of Impact 2023
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Policy & public services