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Food Safety

Work Package WP3.1: Improved Food and Drink Production

Research Deliverable 
3.1.3 Food safety
Leading Ideas 
Healthier Foods
Food & Drink Innovation


Food safety and public health are recognised as critically important issues for Scottish food production (Scotland’s National Food and Drink Policy, 2009). The Food Standards Agency estimate that in the UK, around 1million people per annum suffer foodborne illness, of whom 20,000 receive hospital treatment, with 500 cases resulting in death. The estimated economic cost is nearly £1.5bn. The emergence of new foodborne pathogens or toxins and the control of existing ones remains an important area for future research. Consultation with key stakeholders, including Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and industry highlighted the major areas of concern, including those with relevance to policy, such as the VTEC action plan and Acting on Campylobacter Together (ACT). As such, each of the systems under investigation in this research addresses priority areas or emerging issues for the key stakeholder groups, primarily food and public health agencies and reference laboratories in Scotland and the UK (FSS / FSA, HPS / PHE).

Aim of Research

The focus of the work is on microbial contaminants of food, either directly or via toxins, and heavy metal contaminants. The work will define risk factors and improve detection of the most important food-borne pathogens, toxins and heavy metals, and will examine the flow of antimicrobial resistance through the food and into the commensal microbiota, all of which will contribute to improved public health in Scotland through uptake by stakeholders in public health and the food industry. The work is split into two objectives: the molecular detection and diagnosis of pathogens and risk-based analysis. 


2019 / 2020
2019 / 2020

Detection of microbial, toxin and chemical hazards has been extended to a wide range of foodstuffs, from cereal to meat products. This demonstrates the continued need for surveillance as well as awareness campaigns. As such, deliverable owners continue to work with key Scottish stakeholders to disseminate the major findings. Antibiotic resistance is a global health concern, and work here has demonstrated the value for detection methods, as well as the underlying mechanisms, for priority foodborne microbial pathogens. Risk analysis approaches for other microbes have shown that an apparent antimicrobial property in edible plant species does not inhibit pathogen growth.




Scottish AMR research on an International Platform: Work on the influence of selective pressure on the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) (‘Impact of antimicrobials on gut bacteria’) was presented at the Annual Microbiology Society meeting (Apr-19) and will contribute to a meeting linking to WPs 2.3 and 2.2. AMR is one of the principle drivers in microbiology bioscience, worldwide. Cross-RD coordination will support a Scottish perspective, which can then be used on an international platform, e.g. for the 2020 One Health Congress.


Work from the deliverable was presented and discussed during the SEFARI Gateway-funded workshop ‘Scotland’s Diner Plate 2050’, discussing the future of food production and aspects relating to Food Safety.

2018 / 2019
2018 / 2019

Work continues to accumulate primary data that ultimately feeds into risk management approaches for a variety of food-borne biological, toxin and chemical hazards, relevant to Scottish food production. The work adds data on surveillance and detection in foodstuffs, and characterises known hazards in association with their foodstuffs. The work covers priority pathogens and food issues for Scotland, and we continue to work closely with stakeholders such as Food Standards Scotland for knowledge exchange and dissemination. 


Mycotoxin workshop: Building on SRP and SG-funded research, a workshop to discuss mycotoxin monitoring and potential areas of concern in a Scottish and UK context was jointly organised by Food Standards Scotland and the Rowett Institute (May 2018), bringing together representatives from industry, science and government. Discussion (see report) focussed on Fusarium mycotoxins - the most relevant toxins in terms of UK primary agricultural production, and the challenge of monitoring imports following Brexit.

2017 / 2018
2017 / 2018

Work on molecular detection of pathogens has led to detection of genes relating to antimicrobial resistance in a range of food commodities and modelling of their transfer in a livestock farm setting. In addition, methods have been developed to aid in the rapid detection of the main source of bacterial food-borne disease in Scotland (Campylobacter). Work focused on risk-based analysis has generated data for parameters relating to food-borne bacteria in fresh produce, mycotoxins in cereal-based products and parasites in meat products. Together the data will help to assign relative risk for each system.


A FSA-RESAS co-funded study has shown that plant-bound mycotoxin metabolites are not absorbed in the gut, but will contribute to risk following microbial release in the human large intestine [Gratz et al. 2017 Mol Nutr Food Res 61 (4), 1-10.], leading to change in policy by EFSA and recommendations [EFSA Journal 2017;15(4):4751].

A research publication on novel approaches for data analysis to help in rapid pathogen detection (

Royal Highland Show 2017 exhibits (June 22-25) themed around ‘Microbes & Your Food’, with an interactive exhibit for the education centre (RHET), covering microbial interactions in food production, digestion and pathogen detection, and a SEFARI joint exhibit that engaged with primary producers (livestock & arable), public health workers (e.g. clinicians, nurses) and policy-makers (SG, food safety agency).

A keynote presentation on ‘Food and Waterborne Protozoa: a veterinary and public health perspective’ was given at ApiCOWplexa (October 2017, Madrid) (

2016 / 2017
2016 / 2017

The food safety objectives cover a range of targets from food-borne parasites, bacteria, fungal toxins and antimicrobial resistance genes. All of these issues are contemporary and although not specific to Scotland, they are considered priority areas by vested stakeholders in public health and food production. Our work is split into two main objectives: detection and diagnostics, and understanding the public health risk.  New chemo-analytical methods have been developed for fungal mycotoxins and for the identification of Campylobacter and E.coli strains, including the verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli which cause infectious gastroenteritis. Associated bacterial genomic analysis is also being performed to correlate with the chemical microbial typing data and to establish evolutionary relationships between these problematic bacteria.  Molecular biological diagnostics have been developed to antibiotic multiple resistance (AMR) genes and are being tested to establish their validity and robustness before trialling against food and livestock samples.  Allied to this a model has been developed to study the flow of these AMR genes in the soil (bacteria) and this will be developed and refined as more data is generated throughout the project. Related to this is the ground breaking research showing that these damaging bacteria can survive in crops in field and through the supply chain, not just in humans and livestock. The science around this is being elucidated and this will have implications for full supply and value chain safety protocol development.

Future Activities

Data gathering exercises and analysis in Year 4 were carried out to support or consolidate previous work, leading towards summarisation of the whole 5-year program. A body of work is examining the underlying mechanisms, spread and detection of antimicrobial resistance in a priority food-borne pathogen, Campylobacter jejuni. Elsewhere, sampling and analysis will be completed for the presence of toxins in food, either from fungal pathogen as mycotoxins in cereals, or from heavy metal contamination in a range of Scottish produce. Risk-based analysis will be completed for a priority foodborne pathogen, Shigatoxigenic E. coli in horticultural produce.

Selected Outputs

KE outputs coordinated with another RD (2018-19):


Publications and other outputs


Masked trichothecene and zearalenone mycotoxins withstand digestion and absorption in the upper GI tract but are efficiently hydrolysed by human gut microbiota in vitro. (2016) – a paper published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research by Silvia Gratz et al

Do plant-bound masked mycotoxins contribute to toxicity? (2017) – a paper published in Toxins by Silvia Gratz



MALDIrppa: quality control and robust analysis for mass spectrometry data (2018) – a apaper published in Bioinformatics by Javier Palarea-Albaladejo et al



Quantification and colonisation dynamics of Escherichia coli O157:H7 inolculation of microgreens species and plant growth substances (2018) – paper published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology by Kathryn Wright & Nicola Holden

“A One Health Approach to Tackle Toxoplasmosis”  was a presentation given on the impact of toxoplasmosis at the Royal Society of Edinburgh (April 2018)


Multi-mycotoxin exposure assessment in UK children using urinary biomarkers- a pilot survey (2019) – paper published in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry by Silvia Gratz et al.

Influence of plant species, tissue type, and temperature on the capacity of Shiga-Toxigenic Escherichia coli to colonize, grow, and be internalized by plants (2019) – paper published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology by Bernhard Merget et al.

Variability in growth responses of non-O157 EHEC isolates in leafy vegetables, sprouted seeds and soil extracts occurs at the isolate level (2020) – paper published in FEMS Microbiology Letters by Bernhard Merget et al.