Aberdeen, Scotland – A range of food safety challenges and opportunities were touched on by the chief scientific advisor of Food Standards Scotland (FSS) at a major conference held this week.

Speaking at the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) European Symposium in Aberdeen, Professor David Gally said there are financial, social, and political issues that impact the food chain.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis created pressures at home. People are making decisions on the food they buy versus the fuel they buy. Businesses and consumers are also more likely to take risks and cut corners which is a threat to food safety,” he said.

The talk gave examples of how things are changing, such as new farming systems, novel breeding technologies, methane-reducing feed, and alternative proteins.

“These changes may introduce additional risks but we don’t want to stop innovation. People are pushing for local food production but what are the safety aspects?” asked Gally.

“We have pressure on the level of new talent coming into environmental health jobs. There is also increased pressure on local authorities following EU exit and COVID-19 and we are working to develop new compliance and reporting systems. We need to promote data sharing to analyze big data including artificial intelligence and Blockchain and support scientists.”  

Pathogen problems

Gally said Scotland still has a problem with foodborne pathogens. Campylobacter is at the top, causing the most illnesses, followed by Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.

“Over the pandemic, norovirus, which can be spread person-to-person, had dramatic reductions. There were reasonable reductions for Salmonella, possibly linked to person-to-person and reduced travel. Levels for Campylobacter and E. coli O157 remained stable, it was not about person-to-person spread or handwashing, it was to do with the original acquisition,” he said.

“Scotland has had an issue with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) since an outbreak in 1996. Generally, there is a higher rate of O157 compared to England and Wales. Incidents have a massive impact.”

Scotland has a high proportion of a specific O157 type that has certain Shiga toxins which can cause serious infection outcomes including hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

Gally also mentioned a fatal Listeria incident traced to a salmon-smoking processing factory in Scotland.

The outbreak affected 15 people since October 2020 in England, Scotland, and Wales. Nine patients were ill since January 2022. Three people older than 65 died in December 2020, November 2021, and March 2022. Scotland recorded three cases and two of these deaths. Products tested positive for Listeria but were within the maximum permitted level set in legislation. However, a recall was issued in late 2022.

“Using data that comes out of Public Health Scotland, and making sure we have an information exchange, can help us to understand diseases and build up the social science to understand consumer behavior. With this information we can appropriately target the more susceptible populations, raise awareness in these groups and change the guidance,” said Gally.  

FSS recently updated online microbiological risk assessment tools for businesses selling fresh produce and smoked fish to assess their practices.

Ara Chobanova, the FSS scientific advisor, also presented a project that characterized more than 500 Salmonella strains isolated between 1988 and 2017 from Scottish clinical cases, isolates from domestic food animals, plus food and environmental sources.

Sequenced isolates included 60 different serotypes and 57 clusters were identified. The work demonstrated the persistence of particular clones in animals, food, and humans throughout the period. Results improved the understanding of and ability to investigate the sources of foodborne salmonellosis in Scotland.

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