Food safety conference

Top food safety threat is antimicrobial resistance

By Michael Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Clostridium difficile Food

Antimicrobial resistance in stock and humans poses the greatest food safety challenge, warned Professor Sarah O'Brien
Antimicrobial resistance in stock and humans poses the greatest food safety challenge, warned Professor Sarah O'Brien
Four threats, including antimicrobial resistance, and two opportunities will be some of the biggest influences on UK food safety in the years ahead, delegates heard at the Food Manufacture Group’s safety conference this week.

After antimicrobial resistance, Professor Sarah O’Brien, from the University of Liverpool, listed the top food safety threats as the potential impact of Clostridium difficile​, foodborne viruses and the risk of reformulation.

But it was antimicrobial resistance that posed the top challenge, said O’Brien, who reminded the audience of the warning from chief medical officer professor Sally Davies. Antimicrobial resistance poses as “big a threat to the UK as terrorism”​ and was “an apocalyptic” ​challenge, ​warned Davies.

The threat for the UK was lent new urgency by transatlantic trade talks, she added. The talks could result in food products produced from US industrial scale farming, which relies on antimicrobial products, becoming available in Europe. “That might allow products from North America to appear on our tables more often,” ​said O’Brien. “As we all know, standards apply ​[in the US] that are different from those in Europe.”

‘Running out in 10 to 20 years’

O’Brien said: “People are genuinely talking about treatment for people and animals essentially running out in 10 to 20 years, so it is a big deal. One of the big debates is how much antimicrobial resistance is potentially transmitted through the food chain as well as the use of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine.”

Clostridium difficile​ was the second food safety threat identified by O’Brien. “It’s been a big problem in health and social care settings and it’s related to the over use of antimicrobials – particularly in human medicine.

“But the one to watch is a particular type called 078, which is starting is appear in people and is found in food producing animals and is potentially foodborne.”

The strain 078 was the predominant type of Clostridium difficile​ found both in North American cattle and in foods, according to recent research.

“We can expect a lot more questions to come forward about how much of our home-grown Clostridium difficile is likely to have been distributed through the food chain as opposed to through other routes,”​ said O’Brien. Watch out for more reports on strain 078 next week on

Foodborne viruses – particularly Hepatitis E​ – was the third major food safety threat identified. There are 17M cases of acute cases of gastroenteritis each year, with about 3M attributed to norovirus, according to research at Liverpool University.

“The EU is starting to think about whether it will set levels for norovirus per tonnage in shellfish,”​ she said. “You can’t grow norovirus, so if you find genetic material, does that mean it is capable of causing an infection in people? We need to get a grip on whether the presence of norovirus equates to the presence of infectious norovirus.”

Hepatitis was also rising rapidly up the food safety agenda. There were more than 600 UK cases​ identified last year. Most were linked with genotype 3 Hepatitis E​, which was found mainly in pork products. “There is evidence for foodborne transmission through undercooked pork, wild boar and venison,”​ added O'Brien.

A key question was the survival of Hepatitis E​ in the food chain.

‘Food safety risks’

The final food safety threat listed was the risks of reformulation, following the campaigns to cut salt and, more recently, sugar in processed food. “As Campden BRI pointed out recently, reformulation can pose food safety risks,” ​she said. “Sugar and salt are preservatives. We need to beware the law of unintended consequences as that reformulation takes place.”

Other food safety factors identified by O'Brien included the battle against campylobacter and the implications of an ageing population. 

Meanwhile, two opportunities for food safety professionals to exploit were genetic advances and the social media revolution.

Genetic research – using culture-free diagnostics, whole genome sequencing and metagenomics – will help scientists predict the impact of food safety challenges on individuals, said O’Brien. 

The social media revolution will also help to combat food safety threats – such as the source of food poisoning outbreaks. In the US Twitter had already been used to trace the source of food poisoning outbreaks, she added. In Chicago health officials are using Twitter to help trace sources of food poisoning, while in New York, spatial analysis of Twitter data is being used to predict where the next  food poisoning outbreak is likely to occur in an initiative called Nemesis.  

The food safety conference – Safe and legal food in a changing world – was sponsored by: ACO Building Drainage, Activate Lubricants, AON, Detectamet, FFP Packaging Solutions, the Food Advanced Training Partnership and the Institute of Food Research. It took place at the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon, Warwickshire on Thursday October 15.

Watch out for more conference reports next week – featuring video interviews, including O’Brien on the threat of antimicrobial resistance, text articles and a photogallery. 

On the food safety horizon


• Antimicrobial resistance

•  Clostridium difficile

• Foodborne viruses (Hepatitis E​)

• Reformulation


• Culture-free diagnostics, whole genome sequencing and metagenomics

• Social media revolution and impact on surveillance systems


Source: Professor Sarah O’Brien

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