Food poisoning is a major health challenge costing the UK up to £9bn each year. To help tackle the problem, £1.6m is being invested into a new Food Safety Research Network, hosted by the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park.
It’s estimated that there are 2.4m cases of foodborne illness each year in the UK and that the annual cost from these illnesses is £9bn. Research shows that the cause of these illnesses is often a microbial pathogen carried over into food from the environment, livestock or even from people. The microbes which cause the greatest economic impact are Campylobacter and Salmonella. And, although food poisoning from Listeria is rare, it has a mortality rate of nearly 13pc.
Microbes also play a key role in food waste, with Pseudomonas accounting for 25pc of food spoilage.
A new UK Food Safety Research Network is being funded by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It will connect the food industry, food and health policymakers and academia to collaboratively pursue shared research priorities that will protect the UK from foodborne hazards.
The network will serve as an innovation hub to coordinate and fund cross-sectoral research and training activities that address current and emerging challenges.
Dr Matt Gilmour, group leader and network lead at the Quadram Institute, said: “The safety of our food is threatened by both enduring and emerging threats from microbes that contaminate our food. This threat is exemplified by microbes that spread between the environment, animals and humans – with foodborne exposures being a means for the transmission of pathogens and novel antimicrobial resistance genes from agriculture.
“The challenge is to take an integrated and unified approach to these problems right through from agriculture and the environment to food production and human health, in what’s termed a ‘One Health’ approach. To do that we need to collaborate with food and other associated industries to share research and innovation and deliver training activities.”
The main aims of the UK Food Safety Research Network are to assemble a community of UK food producers, food policymakers and scientific researchers who, collectively, can take robust actions toward improving food safety; identify areas of research that will have meaningful impacts on UK food safety; coordinate new collaborative research activities that will promote the application of science towards the main food safety challenges; promote skills development and relationship-building between our food system community; and translate the knowledge generated within the network to food safety stakeholders.
Prof Ian Charles, director of Quadram Institute, said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this £1.6m grant to help bring our cutting-edge scientific knowledge to the food industry and to help tackle major societal issues such as food safety and food waste.”
FSA chief scientific adviser, Professor Robin May, said: “We are excited to partner with BBSRC and the Quadram Institute for the creation of the UK Food Safety Research Network. Foodborne disease is a major cause of illness in the UK population and imposes a significant burden on both infected individuals and the economy.
“Importantly, the network will ensure that the FSA is well-placed to tackle the challenges of foodborne illnesses by bringing together experts from government, industry and academia to address the issues of food safety in the UK.”
BBSRC executive chair, Professor Melanie Welham, said: “Each year, food poisoning has a major impact on the health of UK citizens and our economy. The new network presents a tangible and exciting opportunity to improve our understanding of foodborne disease and identify new ways in which to effectively predict, prevent, respond and recover from such illnesses.”
Funding boost allows development of diarrhoea treatment
The new ‘poo transplant’ facility uses a procedure known as faecal microbiota transplant (FMT), to help people deal with illnesses such as diarrhoea and other infections by implanting healthy gut microbes into their stomachs.
This procedure has proved to be very effective with the vast majority of patients at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital who were given the treatment for recurrent Clostridioides difficile infections (C.diff). This success has led to the Quadram Institute receiving a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to build and equip a new facility on site specifically for this procedure to be undertaken.
Experts estimate that bacterial C.diff infections alone cost the NHS £500m every year, with around 15,000 cases treated annually. FMT helps break the cycle of this infection and experts hope it will become an increasingly important way to tackle the problem.
Currently, the institute works in partnership with the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital to offer the treatment. The £500,000 investment will mean that the procedure can now be offered to more patients in the region and those that are further afield.
It will also enable research to extend using FMT to treat other conditions, including a clinical study funded by the charity Invest in ME Research for the application of FMT in the treatment of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).
Prof Arjan Narbad, group leader at the Quadram Institute, said: “This is a significant investment which will give us and the hospital the facilities we need to progress both a clinical service and further research into FMT.”
Construction of the new facility is expected to take around nine months to complete.
Images: Salmonella (Top), Prof Arjan Narbad (Left), Dr Matt Gilmour (Right). Credit: Quadram Institute