Welcome to the Food & Health Network, a knowledge exchange network from the Institute of Food Research.

The Food & Health Network (FHN) provides a forum for knowledge exchange within industry and academia.  Where science makes a real contribution to industrial effectiveness and sustainability.

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New Food Safety Centre at the Institute of Food Research


The main aims of the Food Safety Centre are three fold:

  • To allow industry to benefit from access to international expertise in food safety and security
  • To Advise government departments and regulators in the areas of food safety and security
  • To develop research collaborations with other academic institutions to maximise research in the areas of food safety and security

Expertise includes:
Bacterial food pathogens including clostridium botulinum, Campylobacter and Salmonella

  • Predictive Microbiology and QMRA
  • Microbial Tracing
  • Food Authentication
  • Spoilage investigations

Food Safety Centre, Norwich is led by Professor Mike Peck, Director and Elizabeth Saggers, Deputy Director.
For more information please contact: info@foodsafety.ifr.ac.uk

FSA releases new Campylobacter data

Feb 26 – FSA has released the latest data from their Campylobacter retail survey.

This 12-month survey, running from February 2014 to February 2015, is looking at the prevalence and levels of Campylobacter contamination on fresh whole chilled chickens and their packaging. The survey is testing 4,000 samples of whole chickens bought from UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers.

Data from the first two quarters of the survey, which included the testing of 1,995 samples of fresh whole chilled chickens, was published last November. This report gave details of contamination levels in the main supermarkets: while Asda topped the list with 78% of chicken samples being positive for Campylobacter, the lowest on the list (Tesco) did not fare much better with 64% positive.

The cumulative results published by the FSA combine the first three quarters, and confirms the previous report, with >70% of chicken samples positive for Campylobacter. With 68% samples positive, Tesco scores again best, and Asda with 79% comes out worst. More importantly is that 12-31% of samples has the highest level of Campylobacter contamination, as these are the ones more likely to cause food poisoning. Also, almost 7% of packaging samples were positive for Campylobacter,  which is a concern as may expose consumers to infection, although most positive samples had a very low level of contamination. Finally, as these data show the average of the whole 9 month period of testing, it is too early to draw conclusions with regard to the different retailers though, and cannot show whether new intervention and prevention methods under investigation are effective.

With the annual incidence of Campylobacter up to half a million cases per year in the UK, and between 2 and 20 million in the EU, it represents an important public health and economic problem. Funders, regulators, industry, retailers and scientists continue to work together to address this problem. However, this is a problem without quick fixes or easy solutions, and all partners involved want to solve it. Solutions need to be long-term, economically viable and robust.

At the Institute of Food Research, we are doing scientific research on Campylobacter to support the food industry with preventing the introduction and spread of Campylobacter in the food chain, and to support the regulatory bodies by helping them to assess which sources of Campylobacter are giving problems, and whether we can predict future trends in Campylobacter -related food safety. This research is led by Dr Arnoud van Vliet.

False coloured scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of Campylobacter cells attached to chicken juice on a glass slide. Image: Louise Salt, IFR with colouring by Kathryn Cross, IFR

Our work with industrial partners focuses on how Campylobacter can survive in the poultry processing environment. Once the bacterium leaves the gut of the poultry during processing, it needs to survive disinfection treatment, and the general stresses of the outside world. One of the unsolved puzzles about Campylobacter is that it is easy to kill in the laboratory, but surprisingly difficult to remove from the food chain. One of the goals of the Campylobacter research in the Gut Health and Food Safety programme is to gain a better understanding of how Campylobacter grows and survives outside of the chicken gut, and in order to do this this we have been looking at its ability to form biofilms on surfaces. We have shown that Campylobacter can use biofilms for survival, where the bacteria are encapsulated in a slime layer protecting them against cleaning regimens. The Campylobacters can use organic materials generated during slaughter of chickens to bind to surfaces. Our work on biofilms is now progressing to the stage where we are trying to prevent the bacteria forming the biofilm, and by providing advice on how cleaning regimens can be modified to target the already existing biofilms.

A second part of IFR Campylobacter science is aimed at tracing Campylobacter. We use DNA sequencing to get all the information from the Campylobacter chromosome, and use this to make a genetic “fingerprint” of the Campylobacters from different sources. This information can be very helpful to regulatory bodies, both in analysing where current infections come from, and hopefully to predict where future problems may occur. This will aid the resilience of the food chain, and assist regulators, industry and consumers in the ongoing fight for ensuring food safety.

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Is food a possible route of Clostridium difficile infection?

A recent article published by IFR’s Emeritus Fellow Dr Barbara Lund and Professor Mike Peck in the journal “Foodborne Pathogens and Disease” reviews the question whether food may be a route of Clostridium difficile infection (CDI).

C. difficile is a major cause of illness in patients in hospitals and healthcare settings and also occurs in the community. Transmission of CDI has long been considered to occur from person to person, but recent studies have shown that a high proportion of CDI cases cannot be matched to previous cases. It is highly likely, therefore, that other routes of transmission exist, of which food may be one.


Clostridium difficile viewed by transmission electron microscopy – image by Dr Emma Meader and Kathryn Cross, IFR

Clostridium difficile viewed by transmission electron microscopy – image by Dr Emma Meader and Kathryn Cross, IFR


Lund and Peck’s paper considers one possible foodborne route. C. difficile is found in the intestinal tract of food animals, such as pigs, cattle and poultry, and can also be found in some retail raw meat samples in North America and Europe. Like Clostridium perfringens, an important foodborne pathogen, C. difficile forms heat-resistant spores that can survive cooking processes.

Colonies of Clostridium difficile grown anaerobically in plate culture – image by Dr Emma Meader

Colonies of Clostridium difficile grown anaerobically in plate culture – image by Dr Emma Meader

The major cause of food poisoning by C. perfringens is retention of cooked meat products at temperatures that allow growth of the bacteria from surviving spores; previous work by Peck and colleagues at IFR has defined the temperature control required during cooling to prevent this.

In order to assess the risk that C. difficile will be transferred in a similar way, research is needed to determine the effect of temperature, during and after cooking, and of other factors on survival of spores and germination and growth of the bacteria in a product.

See the full article at: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/fpd.2014.1842


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The trouble with Campylobacter

The Food Safety Centre at IFR is helping battle the Campylobacter problem affecting poultry.

The anticipated publication by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) of specific retailer’s levels of Campylobacter bacteria on chicken meat tomorrow has brought the issue back to the forefront of consumers’ minds.


Listen to Dr Arnoud van Vliet explain the problems with Campylobacter and the current research being undertaken at IFR

Campylobacter is the most frequent cause of bacterial foodborne illness in the UK, with the number of cases reaching up to half a million a year. It is commonly found within the gut of poultry, in particular chicken. As chicken is now the most popular choice of meat for UK consumers, the problem is a major health and consumer issue, with a huge economic cost to healthcare, and lost time at work. However it is not a particularly hardy bug. It will not survive in low temperatures and is easily killed by heating above 50oC.

False coloured scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of Campylobacter cells attached to chickenCampylobacter has evolved to colonise the gut of chickens, where it can reside happily and not cause any outward symptoms or disease within the bird. It becomes a problem to us when chicken meat is contaminated during slaughter, and when the bacteria are present in chicken livers used for pate.

Due to the rise in incidences of foodborne Campylobacter infection, and the increasing consumption of poultry, reducing Campylobacter within chickens is currently a major focus of collaborative research between the Food Standards Agency, the poultry and food manufacturing industry and academic institutions. The FSA’s figures show that Campylobacter is an industry wide issue with no one processor or retailer being responsible, so a collaborative approach is vital and essential.

The Food Safety Centre at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) is contributing on many levels. It is working with the FSA to identify characteristics within strains of colonising Campylobacter, with the poultry industry to determine the effects of processing on the Campylobacter strains, and with fellow academics to develop more sophisticated genetic techniques to allow easier tracking and identification of strains. IFR is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), who, along with Defra and the FSA are co-funding initiatives to study Campylobacter in the food chain, from field to plate. By tackling the problem collaboratively, any solutions will be quicker and easier to implement, and we will see reductions in the amount of Campylobacter reaching consumers.

Useful links


More about Campylobacter

What is Campylobacter?

Campylobacter is a group of bacteria which are commonly found in the intestines of many animals and especially birds. In many of these animals and birds it is relatively harmless, and although it may cause underlying disease in some birds and animals, this is unlikely to show on the outside. Hence it is difficult to impossible to screen birds or animals for Campylobacter just on their outside appearance or signs of illness.

So, what’s the problem then?

While birds and animals generally do not develop disease, this is different for humans, especially in the Western world. In countries like the UK it is by far the most common cause of diarrhoeal illness caused by bacteria, with more than a quarter of a million cases annually. The problem is not limited to the UK: in Europe it is estimated that there are between 2 and 20 million cases annually. This is a very important public health problem, but also an economic problem due to days of work lost, cost to the NHS and effects on the export of food.

What are the symptoms of Campylobacter infection?

In Western countries like the UK, the problems usually start about 1-3 days after eating the contaminated food, and typical signs are (severe) abdominal pain and diarrhoea, with fever and generalized malaise and nausea. Vomiting is not a common symptom. In developing countries infection often presents as milder diarrhoea and asymptomatic colonization is common.

Symptoms often resolve within a few days, but in a minority of cases there are possible serious complications which can develop months later. These include reactive arthritis affecting ankles, knees and wrists, and more seriously paralytic diseases such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can lead to death or lifelong mobility problems.

Why hasn’t Campylobacter been more widely heard of?

Although the symptoms of the diarrhoeal illness are very unpleasant, they are not specific and usually resolve without treatment. This means many people do not go to their GP. Also infections occur throughout the year, rather than in outbreaks, and as Campylobacter does not commonly kill people, it does not make the headlines as much. This is changing though as Campylobacter is in the news a lot recently, as it is an issue the FSA is trying to address in order to reduce its social and economic impact. How do the bacteria cause these problems?

Although Campylobacter can be picked up from many sources, in the UK contaminated poultry meat, especially chicken, is seen as the major source, as the bacteria’s main habitat is the intestines of poultry. During processing, intestinal contents can get onto the meat, and the bacteria may somehow survive the handling and storage, through as yet unexplained mechanisms, to reach the consumer. If this meat is then not properly cooked, or kitchen hygiene is not rigorously applied (see below), the Campylobacter can cause sickness. When ingested through contaminated food, the Campylobacter bacteria quickly move to the lining of the intestine, and disrupt this lining, leading to diarrhoea. Besides the activity of the bacteria, the human immune system wants to destroy the invading bacteria, and while it is often successful, this again causes a lot of damage in the intestine with bloody diarrhoea, cramps and pain as consequence, and this can lead to the complications like arthritis, paralytic disease and inflammatory bowel disease.

How can I prevent getting Campylobacter?

It will always be important to be aware of the possibility of Campylobacter on the meat, as even with all the best efforts, we are unlikely to ever be able to eradicate 100% of Campylobacter.

It is vitally important is to apply kitchen hygiene rigorously.

  • Wash and clean all chopping boards, utensils and surfaces used for preparing poultry meat, or use separate ones for raw meat. Also wash your hands with soap and warm water afterwards.
  • Don’t wash the chicken or turkey, as this is likely to spread the bacteria onto other kitchen surfaces.
  • Make sure the meat is cooked throughout, so that no pink meat remains, and the juices run clear.
  • Store your chicken at the bottom of the fridge, to prevent juices dripping on other food. It has been suggested that freezing the poultry meat aids safety, as this will lower the number of bacteria on the meat. Campylobacter may also be present on the packaging, so double-bag your chicken to reduce the risk of contamination.
  • When going to restaurants and fast food outlets, check the food hygiene rating of the outlet.


Is organic or free-range poultry meat free of Campylobacter?

No, these can contain similar levels of Campylobacter, and should not be treated differently.

Why doesn’t the government or the industry do something about it?

They are doing something about it. This is a problem without quick fixes or easy solutions, and all partners involved (government/regulators, producers, retailers, other food industry, consumers and scientists) want to solve it. Solutions need to be long-term, economically viable and robust. While all partners are doing everything within their power to look for these solutions, consumers can play their part by protecting themselves, thereby solving the problem together.

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FHN at Food Matters Live 18-20 November 2014, Excel London

FHN exhibited in November 2014 at this new event and met new contacts and existing FHN Members at our Stand No: RP5 in the Research Pavillion. This new event combined an exhibition, with free-to-attend conferences, seminars and practical demonstrations.  Bringing together over 450 speakers, 200 exhibitors and thousands of visitors from across the food & health sectors.

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IFR - PhD Studentship Opportunities

IFR – PhD Studentship Opportunities

Applications now open for 4 year PhD studentships at the Institute of Food Research, to start in October 2015. These studentships, funded through the Norwich Research Park Doctoral Training Partnership, form an integral part of our research that addresses the fundamental relationships between food and health, food and the gut and the sustainability of the […]

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Food Manufacturer : Food Safety Conference 2014

The Food Safety Centre, Norwich sponsored the Food Manufacture 2014 Food Safety conference on 15th October. The conference entitled: ‘Safe and legal food in a changing world’ – looked at emerging food safety issues and the changing regulatory environment. Dr Sandra Stringer, a lead scientist within the Centre at the Institute of Food Research, contributed to the […]

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Total Food 2014

Total Food 2014

FHN sponsored and attended Total Food 2014 (11-13 November) the fourth in a series of conferences focused on the sustainable exploitation of agri-food co-products and related biomass, thereby helping to minimise waste.

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