The University of Nottingham will spearhead three of the innovative programmes aimed at combatting the bacteria’s formation, survival and spread throughout the production chain.
The studies, coordinated by the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC), are part of a concerted attack on the bug that is the leading cause of food poisoning in the UK, which costs the economy an estimated £600m annually.
Scientists from Nottingham said they would focus on Campylobacter in poultry as this is the most common source of the bacteria. Around two thirds of fresh retail poultry is believed to be tainted with the organism, said the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which, along with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is co-funding the research.
Andrew Wadge, the agency’s chief scientist: "Improving public health by tackling Campylobacter is a key priority for the FSA. The levels found on raw chicken are too high in the UK and we are working with industry to reduce them significantly. “
One of the projects will examine the use of bacteriophage as a viable biocontrol against Campylobacter. A bacteriophage is a naturally occurring virus that kills specific bacteria and the scientists hope to use these to prevent campylobacter from colonizing poultry and poultry meat, said project leader Ian Connerton, food safety professors at the School of Biosciences.
Bacteriophages target Campylobacter only and ignore so-called ‘friendly’ bacteria. As they are commonly present in the environment, humans encounter them every day, including in fresh produce.
The food safety professor will also be heading up a second programme which will examine the presence of Campylobacter throughout the production chain.
All stages of poultry production from farm to retail will be surveyed to record contamination levels and types of the organism present.
This will enable development of a mathematical model that can be used to assess the effects implementing multiple intervention and how useful these might be in reducing exposure to the bacteria, said the team.
“There is a need to find sustainable approaches to control Campylobacters contaminating poultry,” added Prof Connerton. “We are examining the feasibility of biological means and, with industry, how commercial processing measures can be optimized to improve food safety for the consumer.”
A separate project will look at developing a vaccine against the bacteria. The major challenge in this is the ability of Campylobacter to disguise itself against antibodies produced by chickens to avoid detection and clearance – so-called ‘phase variation’.
“This project will monitor changes to surface structures of Campylobacter during infection,” said Dr Michael Jones, a lecturer in microbiology and molecular biology in Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science.
He added: “These changes are how the bacteria avoid being seen by the host immune system and may explain why vaccination against this bacterium does not remove it from the food chain. The data generated during this project will help in the development of more effective vaccines against this pathogen.”