Scientists in Wales developed a new weapon in the battle against food poisoning, which could also cut the thousands of tonnes of meat thrown away by supermarkets.
Experts of the Aberystwyth University in Wales believe the new system which can highlight millions of tiny bacteria invisible to the human eye, could revolutionise food safety and the poultry industry in Wales.
Developed at the university’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), it aims to use a natural additive to poultry feed to make any contamination in chicken carcasses glow a bright ultra-violet fluorescent colour.
Dr Michael Lee, from IBERS, said the aim was to create a gold standard system in Wales for screening carcasses at abattoirs and to develop commercial solutions to benefit Wales’ food industry. “By doing so, any microbial contamination can be greatly reduced or removed completely, depending on the method of intervention”, he said.
There were almost 5,000 food poisoning cases reported to public health officials last year.
The poultry industry in Wales includes 1.5 million pullets and birds kept for egg production, 5.6 million broilers, 57,000 turkeys and 72,000 other poultry including geese and ducks.
Fed before slaughtereing
The additive in poultry feed will be a water-soluble chlorophyll-based marker approved by the Food Standards Agency, which would be fed to poultry before they are killed. When screened in abattoirs using fluorescent imaging, the markers would show up and identify any contamination.
Dr Lee said: “The growing popularity of poultry has been overshadowed by a worldwide public health concern, which has focused on microbial food safety.“ Poultry meat, especially chicken, is cited as the primary cause of human food poisoning in epidemiological reports.
“Worldwide, suppliers, consumers and public health officials remain concerned over the presence of pathogenic and spoilage micro-organisms in poultry meat and its by-products, which have resulted in large numbers of food poisoning attributed to poultry.
“This will improve public health by reducing food poisoning outbreaks and we believe it will lead to new products, processes and services including new feeds formulated to contain the most fluorescent and stable marker and the development of a spectral imaging system for the detection of the marker above.”
The Welsh Government and European-funded project has already attracted partners from the food industry including supermarket giant Waitrose, Carmarthenshire-based food wholesalers Castell Howell Foods and Randall Parker Foods, a regional abattoir in Llanidloes.
The Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales, Professor John Harries, said the project had the potential to make a significant impact on food safety, while also creating economic benefits for the food industry in Wales.
Supermarkets throw away 1.6 million tonnes of food each year, a large proportion of which is discarded due to products reaching their best-before date before purchase. Issues of shelf life cost the food industry millions of pounds each year.
Prof Harries said: “It also clearly illustrates the value of collaborative industrial research between business and academia, aimed at turning good ideas into commercial propositions, bringing new products and processes onto the market.”
The project is already winning worldwide interest. A university spokesman said: “A patent application has been filed for this technology and resulted in significant industry attention with requests to take up licensing of the technology in China and India, as well as significant interest from the US and Latin America.”