BBSRC Institute Strategic Programme: Microbes and Food Safety Partner Grant

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Veterinary College


The Microbes and Food Safety (MFS) ISP will provide an understanding of how microbial threats, such as pathogens and spoilage-causing bacteria, evolve and interact to affect food safety and develop strategies to reduce their impact on health and the economy. We take for granted that most of the food we eat in the UK is free from the risk of microbial pathogens but the Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates that around 2.4 million cases of microbial foodborne illness occur every year, costing in excess of £9 billion. There is also an economic threat of food waste through spoilage, increasing retail costs; up to 25% of food spoilage is due to the action of microbes. Our mission is to reduce human foodborne illness through improved food safety and to reduce waste due to food spoilage. To do so, we will address key food safety questions in three Themes: 1) what and where are the microbial threats in foods? 2) What are the factors associated with the survival and success of microbial threats? 3) How can we use this information to improve food safety and reduce food waste?

Throughout this programme, we will focus on key organisms and issues of strategic importance for food safety, in which we will exploit and further develop our demonstrable expertise. These are Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria, Pseudomonas, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and the identification of emerging microbial threats through the use of metagenome sequencing. As microbial threats such as pathogens and spoilage-causing bacteria exist as complex microbial communities across the food chain, we focus not only on the key organisms of interest, but we will also study the other microbes present which may support their survival or persistence.

In Theme 1, MICROBIAL THREATS FROM FOODS IN ESTABLISHED AND EVOLVING FOOD SYSTEMS, we will identify what microbial threats are present in our food - particularly newer food types. Our aim is to understand how microbial threats spread and cause disease or food spoilage by studying the genetic diversity and dynamics of gene flow within populations of foodborne bacteria. In particular we will assess evolving microbial threats from foods associated with shifts in consumer preference, trading relationships and climate change.

In Theme 2, MICROBIAL SURVIVAL IN ESTABLISHED AND EVOLVING FOOD SYSTEMS, we will define the factors associated with the survival and success of microbial threats. Our aim is to understand microbial survival and adaptation better by understanding the lifestyle of the bacteria present, e.g. biofilms, community associations and/or metabolism without growth. To do this we will use our specialised core services, including informatics, sequencing and microscopy to investigate samples taken from throughout the food chain and also from human clinical samples.

In Theme 3, FLEXIBLE CAPABILITIES TO REDUCE FOOD SAFETY THREATS AND RESPOND TO EMERGING NATIONAL NEEDS, we will use the data generated in the first two themes to improve food safety and reduce food waste. We will work with our stakeholders within QIB, academia, government and industry to apply the scientific evidence derived from our fundamental research to improve the evaluation of future risk and to inform the control of threats to food safety and resilience. Our capability will remain flexible so that we can respond quickly to unexpected emerging national needs as required.

Our aim with this programme of work is, with our established stakeholders, to improve the production of safe and nutritious foods and reduce loss of food from spoilage through the delivery of scientific knowledge and acting as a knowledge and training hub for microbial food safety.

Technical Summary

This project represents The Royal Veterinary College's contribution to the delivery of the following Institute Strategic Programme Grant: Microbes and Food Safety, BB/X011011/1. We will quantify the fate of selected microorganisms along the food chain using probabilistic modelling to facilitate data integration and translation of insights gained in Themes 1 and 2 of the Programme into effective interventions. Furthermore, we will assess, in silico, the potential of enhancing surveillance and horizon scan for future threats and other risks. Existing probabilistic models of Campylobacter, Salmonella and Listeria available in model repositories will be appraised and computer simulation will be used to evaluate the potential of expanding these models to incorporate a number of features that are the focus of other themes within this Programme and have yet to be fully incorporated into conventional quantitative risk assessments. These are: i) consideration of spoilage as undesirable outcome in addition to exposure to harmful bacteria, ii) modelling of multi-species microbial communities and their interactions, iii) modelling specific strains and incorporation of between-strain phenotypic variability. Specific pathogen-food combinations will be selected based on data availability to evaluate quantitatively i) the potential of enhancing surveillance and horizon scanning and ii) the impact of existing and novel industry-level interventions along the food chain. To maximize project impact, recommendations will be made on the potential application of similar quantitative risk assessments to scarce-data settings in low and middle-income countries. Stakeholders from industry, FSA and UKHSA will be involved along the process, from pathogen selection and model formulation and parameterization to interpretation of findings. Models will be documented and made available with graphical user interfaces to industry stakeholders to assist in assessment of risks from their products.


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