Campylobacter is the leading cause of food poisoning in the UK. Nottingham is leading three of twelve projects looking at Campylobacter in the food chain – from field to plate.
The projects, funded through a joint call for proposals managed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Food Standards Agency and Defra, will use a total of over £4m funding to find out more about the organism.
The most common source of Campylobacter infection in humans is poultry meat – either through consumption of undercooked product or through cross contamination in the kitchen environment. Whilst good hygiene and thorough cooking can effectively prevent infection, there are still a high number of cases in the UK and the cost to the economy is estimated at up to £600m per annum.
Ian Connerton, Northern Foods Professor of Food Safety in the School of Biosciences, will investigate the use of bacteriophage – a naturally occurring virus that kills specific bacteria – as a sustainable form of biocontrol against Campylobacter. The aim is to prevent Campylobacter from colonizing and contaminating poultry and poultry meat. Bacteriophage are quite specific and so will only affect Campylobacter and not other, ‘friendly’ bacteria. They are also very common in the environment, which means that humans encounter them on a daily basis, including on fresh produce. The team will use laboratory work and computer modelling to build a comprehensive understanding of how Campylobacter and bacteriophage interact in poultry from farm to supermarket shelf.
Professor Connerton will also head a second project which will survey Campylobacter present throughout the production pipeline. The team will sample all stages of broiler chicken production from farm to retail in order to record the levels of contamination and types of Campylobacter present. This will enable development of a mathematical model that can be used to assess the effects of implementing multiple interventions and how useful these might be in reducing human exposure to the bacteria.
He said: “There is a need to find sustainable approaches to control campylobacters contaminating poultry meat. We are examining the feasibility of biological means, and with industry how commercial processing measures can be optimised to improve food safety for the consumer.”
The University of Nottingham will also work with the University of Leicester to aid the development of effective vaccines to protect both animals and humans against infections by Campylobacter.
Natural infections of the chicken with Campylobacter induce the production of antibodies to surface components on the bacteria. However these antibodies do not clear or prevent further infection. This suggests that the bacteria can somehow avoid clearance due to the chicken’s adaptive immune system.
Dr Michael Jones, a lecturer in microbiology and molecular biology in Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science will investigate a phenomenon of ‘phase-variation’, which is widespread in bacteria and allows them to change the form of their surface components so as to avoid clearance by antibodies. The team will identify the frequency of these switches in bacteria in chickens. They will look at the occurrence of the switches both when natural immune responses occur and also following vaccination.
Dr Jones said: “This project will monitor changes to surface structures of Campylobacter during infection. These changes are how the bacteria avoid being seen by the host immune system and may explain why vaccination against this bacterium does not remove it from the food chain. The data generated during this project will help in the development of more effective vaccines against this pathogen.”
The 12 projects will also contribute to future food security in the UK. Having an appropriate quantity of food to eat is important, but that food must also be sustainable, safe and nutritious. Tackling food poisoning bacteria can improve food safety and also reduce wastage and losses via fewer quality control failures and increased shelf life. BBSRC, Defra and FSA are all partners in the Global Food Security programme and these projects are funded as part of a wider cross-government research and innovation strategy on Campylobacter.
The poultry industry in the UK is worth £4bn at the retail level and employs 35,000 people. This science will serve to underpin strength in this industry in the UK and also globally where it is estimated to be worth over £85bn. This not least because the UK hosts the world’s two leading poultry breeding companies, which supply more than 80% of the global supply of breeding stocks.
Science Minister David Willetts said: “Tackling the causes of food poisoning is vital for our health and will give the public greater confidence in the British poultry industry, as well as helping to guarantee future food security. These projects will ensure this important task is underpinned by leading edge, robust science, with a coordinated approach between Government agencies and the research community.”
There are three main areas covered by the funded projects:
* When does infection begin in poultry, what are the common points of contamination, and are there stages in the process where control measures are likely to be most effective?
* How can biocontrol of Campylobacter on farms and during processing make a difference? What are the best approaches to biocontrol?
* What is it about the biology of the bacteria, the bird, and the interaction between them that compounds the problem?
Campylobacter infection or contamination can potentially occur at any point during poultry production and food processing. The aims of this group of projects include identification of the key sources of the initial infection on farms; the common points of contamination; and ‘weak spots’ in the pipeline of infection where there is a high chance of eliminating bacteria from the food chain.
Some of the projects look at the potential to control Campylobacter infection on farms. By developing and/or testing new and existing biocontrol methods they hope to provide advice for new policy and practice.
Birds are able to tolerate a relatively large population of Campylobacter in their gut without ill effect, whereas humans can become ill after ingesting only a few bacteria. This raises questions as to why the birds don’t become ill and what factors could reduce the burden of bacteria in their gut. This leads to another aim of these projects, which is to investigate the factors that affect colonisation of the poultry gut, retention of bacteria inside the gut, and whether diet can reduce the incidence or level of infection.
The research teams will combine many disciplines to take a holistic approach to the questions raised – microbiology, genomics, mathematics, computing, genetics, epidemiology, and more.
Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive, BBSRC said: “Campylobacter raises some unique questions about food security, human health, and animal welfare. We need good science to underpin changes to policy and practice throughout the food chain that can address these problems whilst supporting a strong farming industry and healthy UK economy. These projects are well placed to make significant advances to this end.”
Andrew Wadge, Chief Scientist at the Food Standards Agency said: “Improving public health by tackling Campylobacter is a key priority for the Food Standards Agency. The levels found on raw chicken are too high in the UK and we are working with industry to reduce them significantly. To help us we need to know more about Campylobacter. The research we are carrying out with the BBSRC and Defra will help us increase our knowledge and better protect consumers.”
Peter Bradnock, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council and chair of the Joint industry/government Campylobacter Working Group, welcomed the new round of research. “Campylobacter is very different from other food-borne bacteria. This work is vital to better inform the controls already in place and interventions being trialled on farms and across the production chain. Poultry companies are fully engaged with the researchers and are collaborating on these projects to find more effective interventions against this most difficult organism.”
In 2010, the UK’s main public funders of food safety research published a co-ordinated strategy to investigate the food poisoning bacteria Campylobacter. This was the first time these organisations have agreed to a common set of objectives to tackle the problem.
BBSRC, Defra, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Northern Ireland Department for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Scottish Government all support the strategy.
The strategy includes:
* Research to understand current infection incidences, current food and farming practices and potential intervention strategies
* Studies of the biology of Campylobacter and the animal hosts
* The development of new tools and diagnostic techniques (for example, feasibility of developing a rapid on-farm test for Campylobacter)
A number of different delivery mechanisms, coordinated by all the funders, will be used to implement this strategy.
The strategy is available to download here: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/web/FILES/Publications/100717_campylobacter_strategy.pdf
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