New project to stop dangerous food poisoning, IBERS develops new system to identify faecal contamination

Dr Michael Lee

Dr Michael Lee

15 July 2011

Scientists at Aberystwyth University are developing a system to identify miniscule traces of faecal contamination on chicken carcases in abattoirs that can cause deadly food poisoning outbreaks.

Although invisible to the human eye, the smallest trace of contamination can harbour millions of potentially pathogenic micro-organisms and enter the human food chain.

The Improved Food Safety initiative - a Collaborative Industrial Research Project undertaken by the University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) - aims to develop a natural additive to poultry feed that will result in ultra-violet fluorescence of faeces.

The additive, a water soluble chlorophyll based marker approved by the Food Standards Agency, would be fed to poultry during the last few days of finishing. When screened in abattoirs using fluorescence imaging, the markers would show up and identify any contamination.

The research project is supported with funding from the Welsh Government’s Academic Expertise for Business (A4B), an initiative backed by European funding designed to increase collaboration between academia and industry and drive forward the commercialisation of research.

Private sector partners involved in the project include the supermarket Waitrose, Castell Howell Foods, food wholesalers from Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire,  Randall Parker Foods, a regional abattoir in Llanidloes,  Wynnstay Group PLC of Llansantffraid, leading producers and retailers of animal feeds and British Chlorophyll Company Limited, Europe’s leading manufacturer and supplier of chlorophyll .

The project builds on novel technology IBERS is currently developing to detect faecal contamination of red meat. That project has developed markers that can be added to the diet of ruminants to increase fluorescence of faecal matter that can be detected when screened.

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.

The Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales, Prof 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.

“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.”

Dr Michael Lee, from IBERS, said the aim is to create a ‘gold standard’ system in Wales for screening carcasses at the abattoir and to develop and commercialise novel Intellectual Property from the project, which would benefit the food industry in Wales.

“The growing popularity of poultry has been overshadowed by a worldwide public health concern, which has focussed 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 microorganisms in poultry meat and its by-products, which have resulted in large numbers of food poisoning attributed to poultry

“This project will investigate and develop a system for screening poultry carcasses so that unseen faecal contaminants will be visualised.  By doing so, any microbial contamination can be greatly reduced or removed completely, depending on the method of intervention.

“It 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 project will be launched on Monday 18th July at the IBERS reception in the Royal Welsh Show – from 5 -7 p.m. in the Aberystwyth University Education Pavilion adjacent to S4C above the main ring.