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Norwich researchers looking to unlock the secrets to improving food safety and security

22 April 2024

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Norwich Research Park is a globally known centre for research excellence, with world leading expertise in the field of food science. In this article we look at some of the ground-breaking investigative work that has been undertaken and the potential impact it can have on improving worldwide food safety and security, food nutrition and future foods and societal change.

Improving food safety and security

Food safety is one of the most important issues we currently face. Reducing human foodborne illness through improved food safety and cutting down on food waste caused by microbial spoilage are just two of the aspects that scientists at the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park are playing a significant role in addressing.

The global burden of foodborne illness is massive. According to the latest estimate by the World Health Organisation, it causes approximately 420,000 deaths and 600 million cases of illness each year. Although the problem is most severe in low-income countries, food safety affects people of all ages and nationalities. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency estimates over a million people suffer a foodborne illness each year costing the economy over £1.5 billion.

Moreover, we waste up to 50% of the food we produce globally. Microbes are responsible for up to 25% of all food spoilage and cause a negative impact right across the global food chain.

Addressing this, the Quadram Institute’s Microbes and Food Safety research programme is looking to both reduce human foodborne illness through improved food safety and lower food waste caused by microbial spoilage. This interdisciplinary hub brings together partners with diverse skills across the food chain to translate their research findings which are then being  incorporated into industry and influence policy.

Combining their skills in microbiology and genomics with cutting-edge technology, researchers provide the evidence to address current and emerging threats to food safety and security providing answers to what and where the microbial threats in foods are, as well as the factors associated with the survival and success of microbial threats, how to improve food safety and reduce food waste.

Working with the food industry, the findings help pinpoint interventions to target those foodborne pathogens as well as develop novel foods. In response to consumer demand for improved quality, longer shelf life and reductions in preservatives, salt and sugar the research findings are delivering new, minimally processed foods that meet these demands whilst maintaining a high level of food safety.

One way in which the Quadram Institute is doing this is by studying how microbes evolve, spread, survive and compete in the food chain. This knowledge is used to develop new ways of intervening so that the burden of foodborne illness can be reduced and novel foods can be safely developed.

This research aims to understand the genomic epidemiology of major foodborne pathogens, such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, Brachyspira and Clostridium botulinum. This involves studying isolates taken from different sources across the food chain, including animals, soil, farms, water, food processing and the wider environment. Through the use of advanced genomic techniques, including establishment of novel sequencing and bioinformatic techniques, scientist are able to understand the evolution of pathogenic bacteria, and to identify the genetic components responsible for their emergence, survival and transport through the food chain, and most importantly their ability to infect and cause disease in humans.

Building crop resistance

The John Innes Centre is another institute undertaking ground-breaking research in food security at Norwich Research Park. One of its main focuses is crop resilience. Its Building Robustness in Crops programme has been designed to develop real solutions to feed an ever growing population in a changing climate.

Most modern crop varieties have not been bred to produce reliably under variable or extreme climatic conditions. In addition, the UK needs to produce more of its own protein and reduce its reliance on vegetable imports. As a nation we also need to use less land to meet our biodiversity and carbon sequestration targets and exploit new opportunities in protected horticulture to improve our health.

Building Robustness in Crops aims to deliver genetic diversity and knowledge, innovative technologies and training to enable the sustainable production of robust high-yielding crops.

Following consultation with industry to identify the key problems and challenges for crop production its research is focusing on oilseed rape, pea, cereals and the Brassica family of vegetables that includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, and turnips.

The research combines its expertise in crop science, plant developmental biology, gene regulation, genomics and computational biology to develop new knowledge and resources to facilitate innovation in the agro-economy.

Example projects include:

  • Establishing how variations in the weather affects crop yields and developing new strategies for breeding new high yielding varieties that are resilient to temperature variations and drought.
  • Discovering how genetic variations produces diverse Brassica vegetable forms and developing new varieties for protected horticulture.
  • Optimising a new generation of RNA structure-based therapies for plant viruses.
  • Creating new breeding tools using gene editing and informing UK government policy on the release of gene edited crops.
  • Understanding why polyploidy (where an organism has more than two sets of chromosomes) is an advantage in plant evolution.

The anticipated long term positive impacts of this work are to improve the reliability of crop performance in challenging and variable environments, provide new tools to enhance the delivery of improved crops, help to develop policy to enable the delivery of effective crop production systems and, importantly, to train world-leading highly skilled research scientists, so that they are capable of improving and delivering UK and international crop science.

Improving wheat resilience

A collaboration between the John Innes Centre and its Norwich Research Park neighbour the Earlham Institute, is leading new thinking on improving the disease resilience of wheat – one of the world’s most important staple crops through the Delivering Sustainable Wheat programme which aims to address critical challenges in wheat health, yield and production in order to safeguard the future of this vital crop.

Wheat is an essential crop globally and is a staple in the UK and Western Europe. With a projected population of 10bn by 2050, the need for sustainable wheat production is urgent. However, the current production of wheat is fragile and the majority of the world’s supply comes from just five countries.

Climate change, new diseases and declining water resources pose significant challenges for farmers and future increases in production must be achieved without the equivalent growth in fertiliser use, which is a significant source of greenhouse gases.

The programme has been developed following extensive discussions with wheat community stakeholders to ensure it is focussed on the right issues.

Delivering Sustainable Wheat has access to world-leading experimental platforms and gene discovery populations aligned to genomic resources that enable the programme to efficiently identify new and useful genes and their role in molecular mechanisms. With gene editing the function of DNA changes can be verified and the value of new traits for breeding tested more quickly.

Delivering Sustainable Wheat will also investigate how wheat might serve as a CO2 sink and contribute towards efforts to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. It will also identify new disease resistances for existing and potential threats and find long-term solutions for sustainable disease resistance, which can be incorporated into sustainable pest management programmes.

In addition, the programme will focus its efforts on increasing the nutritional benefits of wheat by improving its iron, zinc, calcium and fibre content. And, for the first time, it will conduct human intervention trials to provide direct evidence of the physiological benefits of nutritionally improved wheat.

Working with the food industry as commercial partners

Another contributor to food safety and security at Norwich Research Park is delivered by QIB Extra Ltd., a 100% owned subsidiary of the Quadram Institute, that works with industry partners in the food, diet and health sectors to provide expertise and services to help them develop their products.

Companies pay a fee for its consultancy, a project or its services to research a specific aspect of their products or solve a research problem they have identified.

QIB Extra provides ISO9000 standard services, giving its corporate partners the confidence in both the professionalism of the interaction and the research results.

There are three main sectors where QIB Extra is particularly active in running partnership research for companies. They are in challenge-testing food, food labelling and evaluating the level of bioactive compounds in foods.

Challenge-testing is a process whereby researchers introduce bacteria to a food to see if and how long it takes to grow thus making it unsafe to eat which is important for food manufacturers looking to extend the shelf-life of their products. Extending the safe shelf-life of food has positive impacts on sustainability, reducing waste and cutting production costs.

Challenge-testing has become increasingly important as demand for things like vegan or minimally-processed food rises. Because these food types are still quite new, there is a real need to test them to evaluate their safety during storage.

Food labelling can be a complicated business, but researchers at the Quadram Institute are experts in this field of nutritional information. QIB Extra’s Nutritional Information Solutions service enables smaller food companies to get the expert support they need to meet their legal obligations for food packaging.

The Quadram Institute also hosts the Food and Nutrition National Bioscience Research Infrastructure, which maintains the UK’s data on food composition, holding all the nutritional information of foods and ingredients most commonly consumed in the UK. Companies can pay a fee to QIB Extra and access the scientists’ expertise to run calculations based on a given recipe and produce the right labels for regulatory compliance.

The Quadram Institute also hosts the UK’s National Centre of Yeast Collection. 4,400 strains of yeast, some more than 70 years old, including 600 brewing strains are preserved in labs there. Brewers have stored their strains so that they will have the purist strain intact and available should they want to use them again.

Bioactive analysis is the process of identifying and measuring the specific amounts of different compounds in foods that research has linked to healthy properties. This helps farmers and food manufacturers to work together to produce foods that offer potentially greater health benefits. Sometimes that could be when they are trying to breed plants that are rich in certain compounds and other times it is where they are trying to develop growing conditions that enrich these compounds. QIB Extra provides access to experts in the analysis of these compounds in common vegetables like broccoli, cabbages, potatoes as well as bioactive-rich fruits.

And this is just a flavour of the diverse research that is being undertaken at Norwich Research Park in the areas of food safety and security. The expansive scientific expertise, capability and range of technology platforms are a massive benefit for companies working in food research and invitation, making Norwich Research Paark an ideal location for growing businesses in this field.

You can find out more information about how to engage with or join Norwich Research Park’s community here.

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