Scientists from the University of Leicester and University of Nottingham in England are to investigate the health risk posed by undercooked chickens with a view to developing effective vaccines.
They are probing a bacterium called Campylobacter jejuni – a major cause of food-borne infections in people. The research is one of 12 projects, bringing together researchers from across disciplines, that will study Campylobacter in the food chain, from field to plate. Together, the projects cover a comprehensive range of questions about Campylobacter.
The projects funded through a joint call for proposals managed by BBSRC, the Food Standards Agency and Defra, will use a total of over £4 million funding to find out more about the organism that causes over 300,000 cases of food poisoning a year in England and Wales, and how best to control it.
“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”, said Science Minister David Willetts. “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.
Points of contamination
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.
Infections arise with undercooked or non-hygienically-prepared poultry meat. 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.
Dr Christopher Bayliss, RCUK Research Fellow in the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester is involved in the research with Dr Michael Jones, a lecturer in microbiology and molecular biology in Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science.
Funded by BBSRC and FSA, the aim of this project is to aid the development of effective vaccines to protect both animals and humans against infections by Campylobacter.
Dr Bayliss said: “Campylobacter jejuni is a major cause of food-borne infections of humans with undercooked or non-hygienically-prepared poultry meat being the main source of infection. The BBSRC is launching a series of twelve projects with the aim of understanding how this bacteria survives and spreads in chickens and how it gets into the food-chain.
“Researchers at the University of Leicester will investigate the phenomenon of ‘phase-variation’, which is widespread in bacteria and allows them to rapidly change their outer surfaces. These changes enable the bacteria to survive alterations in the environment and to avoid clearance by antibodies.
“The University of Leicester researchers will use experimental and mathematical models to investigate how often phase variation occurs and how it influences survival and spread of Campylobacter jejuni.”
UK Poultry industry
The poultry industry in the UK is worth £4 billion 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 £85 billion. 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.